GWU Issues Management

A blog established for the George Washington University School of Political Management's Issues Management course.

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A middle aged white guy, who likes to think, talk and, too infrequently, write about politics, religion and gadgets.

Monday, March 26, 2007

From Issues Management to Crisis

The huge crisis confronting the White House over the firing of the U.S. Attorneys is an example of what happens when issues management fails. Think about how this scandal has unfolded. Now, speculate on how it might unfolded had there been effective issues management from the beginning.

So, assume that the firings happened. How should the issues management campaign have been conducted. Name a few things you would have done differently from the outset. And, at what point did the issue move into a crisis?

Then we can test your assumptions with Don Gonyea (who just confirmed his availability for Thursday, barring something unforeseen). He'll be able to tell us if our 20-20 hindsight is on target.


Blogger Susan said...

I don't know if this situation ever could have ended well, no matter what actions were taken, because it appears to be a political issue with Congressional Democrats (and now with some Republicans agreeing with Democrats almost a fight back against Bush in general) fighting aginst the administration they dislike and Gonzales in particular.

However, that said, I do think that there are some things that could have been done differently at the outset. From the beginning, it appeared that they had taken the tactic that those being let go were being done so for performance reasons. Yet it seemed that most of them (or at least according to the media, most, if not all, had received very good reviews). Rather than lie, even a tiny lie, it would have been adventageous for them to say "these people serve at the pleasure of the president. We thank them for their service to the president and the country, but we feel it's time to go with someone new."

I think for the average person, this was more about the lies, and appearances of things that were less than on the up-and-up. If they had been more honest from the beginning then they, I don't think, would be in "crisis mode."

In addition, it appears that Gonzales has been less than candid with Congress which is a big mistake I believe because it only makes the issue more of an issue and drags it out both in hearings and in the media. In addition, it seems as though others in his office's actions (whether it be leaving or refusing to testify) make this the issue that it has become. I think that there are no "simple solutions," but I do believe that it would not have been as big of an issue as it has become if they had been honest from the beginning and just explained their reasoning. Some people may not have liked it, but the fact is that those fired do serve at the President's pleasure and the backlash that the administration would have received for being honest while great, most likely would not have been as bad as what it has come to now.

I don't know if there was a particular point that I would say it hit "crisis mode," I think perhaps when members of the Republican Party started to echo the calls of Democrats (especially in calling for Gonzales to resign) it really hit crisis mode, because one could not call this a partisan attack anymore since members of both parties realized the magnitude of this.

8:00 AM  
Blogger Cgallup said...

The effective issues management campaign would have revolved around a fifth-grade civics lesson. The power to execute the laws is entrusted to one person alone – the president. The ability to appoint, retain or fire anybody to carry out these responsibilities is a core executive function, properly left to his unfettered discretion. The president, presumably with his aides, and the attorney general are charged with making judgments about whether a particular appointed official, including a U.S. attorney, is carrying out the policies and priorities of the president and his administration in a manner they find acceptable. These are uniquely judgments to be made by and in the executive branch. Yet the Bush administration offered limp, timid, nonsensical and self-contradictory explanations. That’s when we hit a crisis. Meanwhile, some members of Congress – hoping not only to extract a proper political accounting from the president, but also to make partisan hay – overreach, questioning not just the wisdom of the executive’s decisions, but the very legitimacy of its power. If the president is not responsible for the exercise of this great power, then no one is. And irresponsible exercise of power is the very definition of tyranny. Let the president act. Let Congress question him for his actions. Let the president answer truthfully and, one hopes, intelligibly. Let Congress spread the facts on the public record. And let the people keep all this in mind when they go to the polls.

8:21 PM  
Blogger Danny said...

I agree fully with the first to posts. All the White House needed to do to stop this crisis was to pick up the constitution and start reading. Article II, section 2 might be a good place to start. Ye ole parchment lays it out pretty clear. The president doesn't need to give excuses for why he fired those attorneys. Coming out and saying it was performanced based was a poor decision and it left the White House open to attacks from congress. If they had just told the truth, the worst they would be accused of is partisan appointments. The White House created this problem for themselves and turned what should have been a minor issue into what could turn out to be yet another scandal.

6:54 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

In my opinion, the issue of the fired United States Attorneys was mismanaged from the beginning. Not only did the White House fail to control this story, but it also botched the media responses that were given immediately after the fact.

Assuming that the firings occurred, and assuming that the White House intended not to admit any wrongdoing in the process of reasons behind that action, then I would have suggested that they take a proactive approach to controlling the story.

Here’s how I would have dealt with it. First, as soon as there appeared to be any pushback from the fired U.S. Attorneys, and as soon as the story began to make its way into the news, I would have had the White House prepare a detailed list of all of these attorney’s failures. This would not have been a smear campaign against them, but it would have been ammunition that could be used against the claim that they were simply let go because they were not “loyal Bushies” or because they were not actively prosecuting Democrats in their respective jurisdictions. Essentially, by providing the press with legitimate performance related reasons for why these attorneys were fired, it would undercut the cries of partisanism that eventually overtook the story. In my opinion, it would have dulled the impact of this story if there was at least the appearance by the White House to provide truthful and performance based answers for why the firings occurred.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Brian C. said...

First, I think that the WH was a bit arrogant in thinking that this would get by both a Democratic majority Congress and the American public. While I agree that these attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president there are some differences in how the Bush administration “dismissed” these attorneys. Their main defense that Clinton had done the same thing is not necessarily accurate. While Clinton did dismiss US attorneys at the start of his presidency, as most presidents do when they assume the office from a different party than their predecessor, he never fired attorneys while in his term as direct retaliation for not supporting his policies and being loyal to his party. This obviously seems to be the motives behind the current firings as all of the attorneys had impressive evaluations. Of course now it has turned into a political war, that the Democrats are making an issue out of (don’t think that if the tables were turned Republicans would not be doing the same thing) and the WH and Dept of Justice are pretty much screwed.

Some key things that should have been done differently is that the president right away should have taken the podium, explained his constitutional rights, and accepted full responsibility for what happened. By hoping this crisis would die out was the worst possible advice he could have received. He let the situation drag on and allowed the media to make it into a public spectacle. The AG should have fully cooperated with Congress and both the Dept of Justice and the WH should have been much more forthcoming in handing them the information they requested from the beginning. I believe this situation hit the crisis stage the minute congress started asking questions. While I admire Bush for being loyal to the AG and sticking by him, the only way I foresee this crisis ending is by Gonzalez leaving office.

7:19 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...

Having just gone through the whole Scooter Libby trial one would think that the administration would know not to evade the truth - especially with a hostile Congress. Others have said it, but what needed to be done was for the administration to stay on message that the attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President but also to be open and honest about what took place. Right now its the Democrats in Congress who are setting the agenda and controling the way this story is viewed. When the administration refuses to testify under oath or pleads the 5th, it just looks to Congress and the public that they are hiding something sinister. No matter what actually happened, the administration has lost the battle for the support of the American people already. The administration should have spoken about the issue whenever asked and stuck to one message - not make up excuses about performance but stuck to constitutional authority (though this would have still upset many...). The issue became a crisis I guess when the calls for Gonzales's resignation began. When blame began to be assigned it was clear that most thought wrong-doing took place, and different members of the administration began to come up with excuses for who was responsible for whatever took place and why. Frankly, however, the administration was already in crisis mode because they had lost control of the agenda, so they never had the appropriate footing to cope with this situation.

9:05 AM  
Blogger rach a said...

Suffice to say, as usual, the total message being filtered through the Anti-Administration lens, and as such, has created a world where the firings APPEAR out-of-order.

The facts are that high scrutiny over executive affairs has risen over the Bush years. This is not uncommon for two term or even one term presidents. Clinton scandals also drove high scrunity in executive procedure, as did Bush Sr. and Reagan, regardless of the successes they had during the first year or two of policy.

The facts are that many government agencies have strict performance assessment matrices and firings have not increased after that institutionalization within department of state (INL, PA/LA), department of justice (FBI), and department of the treasury (ATF and SS). What's acceptable to the AG is mandated by the choice of lawyers to work under his command. They serve at his discretion at the pleasure of the Administration. When performance does not equate to policy line, you cut it off!

How unfortunate that the liberal media does not recognize or talk about the role that "information" and "transparency" of government affairs has had on daily operations of the executive. What a waste of time and energy of the executive on this un-newsworthy issue.

The result of greater transparency, whether you like it or not, is that firings and mishaps seem RIDICULOUS and OUT-OF-ORDER thanks to the sensationalist and commercialist media, when in fact they are and HAVE BEEN commonplace for years. Veteran reporters know this.

Because only 20% of the country really gives an owl's hoot about politics, and even then with limited information and it is filtered, they think they have the intelligence and enough knowledge of the issue to "state their opinion". Go back to school, Jack.

I highly doubt that the 1-2% of Americans who are "influentials" with the audience spectrum, are representative of the thoughts and opinions of the American population, yet because of increased exposure of scrutiny (which was more handled internally in years past) their thoughts are what you hear on the radio, in print, and on television. Perfect timing for Anti-Administration people vvying for attention.

In other words, the way to manage this issue is to demonstrate that changes in top leadership within executive management is and has been commonplace, and show in short words, EVIDENCE of major firings in administrations past.

You go on the offensive to media sources who DO NOT SHOW ALL SIDES OF THE PICTURE. Move against sensationalism, not transparency:

The issue at hand is not that transparency is bad, but that the explanation of what's coming out of mass media encourages cynicism and misguided perceptions of executive management.

You hold many press conferences where you put your message out to the media, take it or leave it. We like dialog and transparency, but this story is just not newsworthy, it's commonplace. Here's evidence. Show all the evidence, not just what supports your bias or whim that day.

You brief congress in hearings and in briefings of the facts, don't pretend like this is something new and newsworthy. Come on guys, this is how we do business.

I just think this whole thing is soooo anti-productive to government operations. What a waste of time and effort. When you don't like people, you fire them, because a smooth operation's derivative is solid team work and shared communications. Why does this at all matter if Gonzales thinks it is good for government efficacy to fire these lawyers. He was appointed AND CONFIRMED by the Senate.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Brandt said...

Maybe they should have fired more attorneys; the fundamental problem with the firings can from the fact that those attorneys that investigated the Republicans. Maybe if they went with their original plan to fire all the attorneys they would not have been accused of that fact, because they would have fired attorneys that investigated democrats as well. They could have then proceeded with their plan to talk about how they serve at the discretion of the president it was his prerogative and not personal. That argument lost when they could clearly show that it was a political decision.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Bethany said...

Like most, if not all, issues management problems, the current White House problem stems from the cover-up, not the problem itself. Telling the truth saves a lot a headaches further on. Example: Clinton--if he'd just been honest about Monica at the beginning, it would've been a non-issue because no one really cared about his personal life. He made it a political issue by lying. I don't know why the administration STILL hasn't figured this out (or why so many politicians in general haven't gotten it yet).

That being said, the administration should have said that the firings were because the attorneys serve at the president's pleasure. The performance story doesn't work.

Secondly, Gonzales clearly was not clear on his message. He should have known his message backwards & forwards before he came within a hundred yards of a TV news crew. Especially when an issues management problem is involved, it is crucial that anyone who will be speaking on behalf on the organization know exactly what to say, how to say it, how to keep saying it, and how to answer questions by restating it. Gonzales has made things worse for the administration by sounding ridiculous.

Apparently, the administration is in denial about the current strength of the Democrats in Congress, because they keep acting as though they could still count on a lack of congressional oversight. And of course partisan politics is involved. That's how it works in Washington. The key is knowing how to work the game by effective issues management.

12:22 PM  
Blogger lindsay a said...

The administration handled this situation very well in the beginning. The attorneys do serve at the pleasure of the president, and everyone did a pretty good job of ramming that issue into the ground. If the president feels its time for you to go, you're gone. Where they made the mistake was explaining their decision. As soon as they said that the decision was made because of poor job performance by the attorneys they lost handle of the situation. All press has to do is find out how the attorney's had done on their last reviews--low and behold, they did well. This administration has not yet learned that it isn't OK to lie. If they had just stuck to their original story of them simply serving at the pleasure of the president, they would not have gotten caught in another web of lies.

1:40 PM  
Blogger Justin P said...

The scandal unfolding around the firing of eight U.S. attorneys has been a victory for the Democrats. They capitalized on this issue by linking the firings to a larger message that the Bush administration has rewarded loyalty over all else.

"There were clearly U.S. attorneys that were thorns in the side for one reason or another of the Justice Department," Feinstein said on Face The Nation (Quote from Washington Post, 3/19).
A Justice spokesman said there was no connection between the firings (in particular Carol Lam’s) and public corruption investigations. The spokesman pointed to criticisms of Lam for her record on prosecuting immigration cases. I think this is was a good way to approach the firings; lay out specific reasons for each case.
I think the real mistake was firing so many individuals at the same time. This drew attention unnecessarily. They should have predicted the impact this would have and taken steps to prevent the issue, rather than being solely defensive.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Brooke said...

At the point of firing, it’s a no win scenario. The White House will say they did it because it was in the best interest of our country in moving forward, and the Democrats will insist it’s a victory and another example of a corrupt Republican Administration.

Regardless, from the beginning the President should have said the buck stops here. Waiting for days to acknowledge the situation didn’t help Gonzales gain support at all. In addition, there should have been a single spokesperson from the get-go – speaking for all parties of interest.

The situation was only further personified once the President finally attempted to defuse the controversy over the firings of Gonzales, stating that top aides would be available for private interviews with congressional investigators only to find out that Monica Goodling, a counsel to Gonzales who helped coordinate the dismissals of eight U.S. attorneys, would invoke her constitutional right not to answer Senate questions about the firings.

None of this looks favorable for the White House. Had the Administration had better communication regarding the reasons for the dismissals initially or even come forward SOONER with the argument that it was within Bush’s rights to fire presidentially appointed prosecutors, it would be a completely different situation.

2:22 PM  
Blogger alison m said...

I think the major breakdown happened in what Jane Garvey spoke about last week:

Tell the truth.
Tell it all.
Tell it yourself.

Those processes didn't happen in full, and as a result, we are where we are.

They managed to trip over themselves while backpedaling to correct their first mistake.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Elan said...

Part of me wants to say that there was little that anyone could have done to properly handle the issue. As we’ve discussed in class at length, issues management isn’t simply a matter of “spinning” material – there needs to be some substance there. At the heart of this issue is that the White House did something that great masses of Americans and legislators seem to be uncomfortable with. To truly properly “manage” this issue, they shouldn’t have done what they did.

That said, I’m reminded of Ms. Garvey’s advice toward the end of her presentation last week: “Tell the truth, tell it all, tell it early, and tell it yourself.” Certainly, telling the truth upfront doesn’t necessarily prevent the audience from disagreeing – but it does put you in a much better position as the issue continues. If the White House had come out at the beginning of the situation with a simple statement, to the effect of “we got rid of those attorneys because we didn’t like them” (although, of course, worded a bit differently), they wouldn’t have had to worry about being accused of lying and covering anything up – they wouldn’t have had to worry about managing the issue and crisis that confronts them now.

Unfortunately for the White House, that isn’t how they dealt with the issue. This may be a rather simple way of approaching the situation, but I suppose the “issue” moved to full-on crisis when calls began being made for Attorney General Gonzales to step down or be fired. From the perspective of the White House and those “managing this issue,” the purpose of the initial firings was to be able to fill the Justice Department with more supportive, pro-agenda attorneys; well, at this point, they’re facing the prospect of not only not being able to bring in more supportive attorneys, but of loosing the boss too. In a sort of retrospective cost-benefit analysis, the potential costs of the decision to fire the attorneys has now come to outweigh the possible benefits – making this a bit of a crisis.

3:21 PM  
Blogger John B. Neurohr, Jr. said...

I think the entire situation could have been avoided had the administration effectively communicated a defense that they are allowed to fire and hire federal attorneys at any time. They attempting to do this by making comparisons to the Clinton adminstration that, in all reality, is not comparing apples to apples.

The reason that it blossemed into a scandal is that there was not a clear communication plan put forth by the administration -- there were varying excuses and numerous "can't comments..." The worst communications strategy is not being transparent (or at least not APPEARING to be tranparent)...

3:30 PM  
Blogger John B. Neurohr, Jr. said...

I think the entire situation could have been avoided had the administration effectively communicated a defense that they are allowed to fire and hire federal attorneys at any time. They attempting to do this by making comparisons to the Clinton adminstration that, in all reality, is not comparing apples to apples.

The reason that it blossemed into a scandal is that there was not a clear communication plan put forth by the administration -- there were varying excuses and numerous "can't comments..." The worst communications strategy is not being transparent (or at least not APPEARING to be tranparent)...

3:30 PM  
Blogger John B. Neurohr, Jr. said...

Also, I'm sorry my entire dorky name shows up when I post!

3:31 PM  
Blogger Josh said...

Assuming it were impossible to go back and prevent the attorneys from being fired in the first place, two things should have been done differently.

In the first instance, the Administration should have strongly stated that each employee was taken on agreed to serve at the pleasure of the President. The process for outlining the historic stats of attorney tun-over in the past few years would then be outlined.

Secondly, a better effort should have been made to aid the fired attorneys in suring up their reputation within the legal community. This way, their departure would not have been such a repetitional blow, and subsequent trigger of defensive action.

4:57 PM  

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