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Politics & Government

When You're The President, What Counts As Need To Know?


In recent weeks, the White House staff has pleaded in a couple of high-profile embarrassments that the president did not know. As we just heard from Ari, it's been reported that President Obama did not know until recently that German Chancellor Merkel's communications had been intercepted. It's also been said that he was unaware of problems with the rollout of

Those reports raise questions. How much do presidents typically know about what their agencies are doing? And on a scale from deep in the weeds to wake me up when there's an emergency, how does President Obama rank for attention to detail in the executive branch?

Well, David Gergen served on the White House staffs of Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton, and he joins us from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he's now working at Harvard. Welcome to the program, once again.

DAVID GERGEN: Thank you, Robert. It's good to be with you again.

SIEGEL: And, first, presidents routinely see summaries of intelligence. Do they typically know whom we're bugging to get that intelligence?

GERGEN: Well, they should, obviously. The way the White House works is the president gets a daily report from intelligence that's both verbal and then written. And those daily briefings, I don't think he would be told that. But rather it would come in - when there are overviews.

Especially at the beginning of an administration when a president is freshened to office, the Defense Department comes and briefs him on how the airplane works, so in case there's an attack, you've got - everybody gets briefed up on the black box. And that's when you would assume he would have been told about the bugging of foreign heads of state. You also might ask if he wasn't told, why wasn't he curious about whether he was being bugged by other countries and, in turn, were we bugging others.

SIEGEL: In the case of, I know that when you last worked at the White House, IT was not yet a major national issue. But when you think of big policy initiatives, do you recall presidents digging deeper than what a cabinet secretary or the assistant secretary in charge of that initiative had to say about it?

GERGEN: Well, on domestic issues, Robert, it is rather idiosyncratic. Some presidents, and usually the ones who are Democrats who believe in bold initiatives in government, are extraordinarily curious. Franklin Roosevelt was famous for having his own personal intelligence system, so that when anybody ever - one of his staff wanted to tell him something, they had just learned - turned out he already knew about it. He was just - he had - he ran his intelligence service, and it was enormously helpful for his presidency.

So did Lyndon Johnson. You know, he was on the phone all the time, always wanted to know what was going on, press people. And on the other hand, fellow like President Reagan stood back for a minute and was very dependent on his staff. He had a highly competent staff. They would keep him informed. But if he had a staff that was not so competent, and that happened once, then the president wasn't well informed, as on Iran-Contra. So it is idiosyncratic.

I think the surprise here with President Obama is that health care was his and has been his signature issue. It is - his legacy is heavily going to depend upon the success of his health care program. Given that, I think the surprise is neither he, nor his team was set up to get regular briefings to be on top of this, be guiding it. So I've been surprised that there is no, in effect, domestic czar, some major heavyweight by the president's side.

Say, a Tom Daschle, former senator, who has been with him to oversee not only the passage, but then very importantly the implementation of the health care law.

SIEGEL: You're surprised by the lack of attention.

GERGEN: I'm deeply surprised. And, you know, Robert, there's been an additional piece of the story that's come out just in the last few days. And that is about the number of people who have lost their health insurance, and yet we have these - we - continuos stream of promises from the president that no one would lose their health care plan if they wanted to keep it.

That to me is - why didn't he know about that? I think this is a important turn in the Obama administration's position within American politics. They were really riding high coming out, because the Republicans were on the defensive, you know, and the extremism over the government shutdown. And that narrative has now been replaced by a narrative of what did the president know and when did he know it.

SIEGEL: David Gergen, thanks for talking with us.

GERGEN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: David Gergen, a former White House official under many presidents, who's now at the Kennedy School at Harvard University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.