Learning Curve

I learned a lot from Robert Rubin’s book In An Uncertain World, which I wrote about first here

Among Rubin’s strengths was the humility to admit what he didn’t know. He didn’t just play to his strengths. He adapted to the environment and asked himself what he needed to do to succeed. 

Asking the right questions

Rubin wrote about his first day as the head of the newly-created National Economic Council, his first day working in government having just left Goldman Sachs after 26 years:

As I had done at Goldman Sachs, when I showed up for my first day of work not knowing what an arbitrageur did, I started writing down questions. How had other Presidents coordinated economic policy? What had worked and what hadn’t? What would make this new body succeed or fail? How could we get cabinet members and senior White House staff to buy into the NEC process? What should my substantive role be? I had other questions about how to function in Washington. How could I be seen to have authority without behaving in an authoritarian manner? How could I follow my inclination to maintain a low profile but deal effectively with the media? How should I allocate my time? How could I do my job and still have time to think?

Legal pad in hand I made the rounds and interviewed people. A few, such as Bob Strauss, I already knew well. Others, such as Brent Scowcroft, who had been national security advisor to Ronald Reagan and George Bush, I didn’t know at all. What they had in common was knowing a lot about life and work in the White House. While some of the advice didn’t work for me, my semi-legible notes from those conversations make an interesting primer on the ways of Washington. As much as I would learn from my own mistakes in subsequent years, I’m lucky to have been able to begin by learning from other people’s.

A lesson in politics and media

Rubin continues later in the book:

My modesty about my skills in this world was frequently reinforced. In May 1993, as we were struggling to get our economic plan through Congress, I appeared on The MacNeil//Lehrer NewsHour opposite Pete Domenici, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee. I spent considerable time preparing with Gene [Sperling, Deputy Director of the National Economic Council]. My opening comment was that our deficit reduction plan was real and serious.

"Frankly, it is predominantly a tax plan," Domenici replied.

I responded by talking about the “trust fund” we had proposed so that monies set aside for deficit reduction would go to deficit reduction.

"If the American people think there’s too much taxes and not enough spending cuts in the plan, please don’t think that calling the taxes a trust fund changes it," Domenici said.

I responded that Leon Panetta and Alice Rivlin felt very strongly that the numbers in our plan were real.

Domenici responded that the defeat of our “tax plan” would be the best thing that could happen to the country.

I fired back with more specifics. The numbers produced by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office were close to those produced by OMB. Both agreed that the ratio of tax increases to spending cuts in our plan was approximately 1 to 1.

Domenici responded that our tax plan would hurt the economy.

I thought I’d done pretty well and was very pleased to say so to Gene after the broadcast. They had asked me various questions, and I had come back with good, detailed answers. Domenici had just kept repeating the shibboleth that our plan was a tax increase. Gene had a different take. He said that people who saw the program would think that “you seemed like a nice, smart man who wanted to raise their taxes.” Domenici’s performance demonstrated both how effective a simple message could be on television and how effectively our plan could be attacked. My response demonstrated the difficulty of crafting an effective, simple defense of our substantively complicated strategy.

Rubin admits, “Of course, part of the problem simply may have been me,” and went on to work with a media coach.