In more than six years on the staff of President George W. Bush’s National Economic Council, I had the type of conversation described in the WSJ article hundreds of times. As a policy aide one of my core responsibilities was to make sure the President’s policy was accurately communicated and that we could back up every word in the President’s prepared remarks. This was mission critical for us policy aides–I knew that if President Bush said something incorrect on which I had signed off, I was at serious risk of being fired, even if it was just an honest mistake.
While the most important of these discussions were about upcoming Presidential speeches, I had similar conversations several times each day. A huge part of a White House policy aide’s job is to be the internal “official” explainer of the President’s policy. As a White House policy aide you don’t get to decide the policy, but you are the keeper of the flame once the President has made his decisions. You answer questions like “What is the President’s policy on X,” and “Can I say Y about the President’s policy?” You help the White House press shop, legislative affairs and political staff, Cabinet Secretaries and subcabinet officials, and occasionally outside allies who want to know, with certainty, that they are accurately describing the President’s policy views. You live and breathe this stuff.
As presidential speeches were being drafted White House staff had different roles in the process. The speechwriters had the pen. They emphasized simplicity, persuasiveness, intellectual consistency, tone, and writing in the President’s voice. We policy advisors pushed for clarity, accuracy and strong advocacy of the President’s policies. The legislative affairs shop weighed in to have desired impacts on Congress. The press and communications shops focused on how the press would interpret and react to the President’s words, and the political advisors had similar filters thinking about outside allies and opponents.
The White House policy council staff (National Economic Council, National Security Council, Domestic Policy Council and at the time, the Homeland Security Council) had reinforcements as well. Fact checkers working for the speechwriters footnoted every speech. There were other policy shops in the Executive Office of the President, including economists at the Council of Economic Advisers, budget experts at the Office of Management and Budget, and the Vice President’s policy staff, who were similarly focused on making sure we didn’t let the President say something inaccurate or overstate anything.
When things worked well, as they usually did, the speechwriters and policy advisors found language that was accurate, defensible, simple, and persuasive. This often involved many iterations, usually in a debate about accuracy vs. simplicity, as the WSJ reports was the case with President Obama’s “you can keep your health care plan, period” promise. I remember spending close to an hour once trying different iterations to ensure the accuracy of a single sentence for the President.