A Conversation with Bob Woodward: Highlights

Edited for length

Academy: You’ve had a lot of experience in Washington. These are unpredictable times. How do you think public policy can be formed, and how do objective organizations form public policy?
Bob Woodward: To remove it from the Trump administration, I’ve written about the last eight presidents and am doing a book on Trump now. There are common themes that apply to all of them. Whether they’re successful or they fail, the theme is the absence of strategic thinking. The White House, every time, in every administration, gets overwhelmed and consumed and eventually almost always drowns in crisis management. What is the crisis today? They are engaging in crisis management rather than in strategic thinking—where they want to be in two years and setting goals. “This month, we want to be here; next month we want to be here,” and do it in a logical, methodical way. Crisis management sucks all the oxygen out of all that is being done, and I can’t point to a president from Nixon to Obama where there was consistent strategic thinking…
…What is missing in the presidency and governing is particularly for a president—presidents don’t realize the agenda-setting power they have. A president can go to Camp David and say, “That’s what we’re doing for two weeks.” Trump says, “We’re going to have Infrastructure Week,” and he does something that takes all the attention away from that. Strategic thinking has a structure but it gets crushed by him. What crushes strategic thinking is an external event.

Academy: External events are one thing, but internally generated events are another.
Bob Woodward: You can criticize Reagan, but he came in with three goals: cut taxes, cut government, and increase defense. In his eight years, he cut taxes and increased defense; he did not cut government. He achieved two of his goals. If you look at some of the other presidents, he batted two for three.
Academy: It sounds like strategic thinking is a focus—as is the need to be clear about what you’re talking about to the American public.
Bob Woodward: You need to billboard it and say it’s what you’re thinking about, and you need to do it and get people on board. It’s hard, and it’s often boring. You need to sit down for your 36th meeting on your education plan—and from the 35th meeting there has not been measurable progress. It’s hard. It’s something that everyone needs to do in their own life. How are my relationships? Kids and family? Finances? Job? It’s hard to sit down and take a cold sober look at all of it.

Academy: Your next book is on President Trump. Will you have finished it and tell us in November what drives Donald Trump?

Bob Woodward: You sound like my agent. No, it won’t be finished. It’s not easy; things change over time. I try to be empirical—what drove it? What was decided? Decision-making is the essence of the presidency, and maybe the big decisions for Trump are more likely the big decision in the future. That doesn’t mean I’m punting; I don’t know. 

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