Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Former Bush official offers 'contrarian view' on Obama budget

Watch a video of Andrew Card speaking with Paul Brown, dean of the College of Business and Economics, about the changing political landscape and his career working for the last three Republican administrations.

Andrew Card, a consummate political insider who has helped steer national policy for more than 20 years, contends that the financial crisis inherited by President Barack Obama was a failure on multiple levels, especially of the political leadership in Washington.

Card, who visited Lehigh Monday as the inaugural guest of the College of Business and Economics’ new Speaker Series, believes that Congress was not only complicit in selling a false bill of goods to the American public, but that its members actually believed that risks were irrelevant if the ultimate goal was to spread home ownership.

“We were living a life of opportunity. People were buying homes not to live in, but to invest in,” said Card, who has been a senior advisor in the past three Republican presidential administrations. “Even though my generation bought homes to live in—and my father’s generation bought homes to raise families in—just two years ago, people were buying homes to invest in.”

It was a climate of risk the government helped create, Card said, especially as few inside the Beltway recognized that problems with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were rapidly escalating. On Sept. 7, 2008, the U.S. government seized both agencies, putting the mortgage giants under conservatorship.

The result, he said, is a day that will live in infamy as the start of the global financial crisis. Now, Card said, the United States needs an economy that quickly gets back to the basics—and an administration that needs to focus on what is needed, rather than what is wanted.

“I definitely don’t believe that there should be a rush to get things done that are for want, and not need, and that’s my fear about the budget that he presented,” Card said, referring to President Obama’s proposed $410 billion omnibus spending bill.

“It was a catch-all budget. It was like running through Wal-Mart with an unlimited expense account. You were grabbing everything off the shelf and putting it into that budget basket before presenting it to Congress,” he said.

Adjusting priorities

A large crowd at Baker Hall listened attentively to Card speak.

Card most recently served as chief of staff for nearly six years under Bush, one of the longest tenures of anybody to hold that position in the past century. He is perhaps best known for whispering “America is under attack” into President Bush’s ear early on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Card drew a crowd of about 350 students, faculty, staff and community members for his afternoon talk at Zoellner Arts Center's Baker Hall. In addition to offering his views on the financial crisis, Card spoke about his personal and professional relationship with George W. Bush and the demands of the chief of staff position. He also criticized the Obama Administration for what he sees as a loss of focus.

“The person that gets elected president is a lot smarter the day they take office than the day they were elected. That’s because they have the benefit of a transition where they learn the realities of the government, the realities of the world, and the realities of the Congress,” Card said, suggesting that the unanticipated global economic downturn requires Obama to refocus his priorities.

“‘Yes we can’ takes on a different slogan: ‘Yes we can, but we didn’t know it was so hard.’ Or, ‘Yes we want to, but you don’t understand how hard it really is.’ Or, ‘No we can’t, but we really want to try,” Card said. “Or just forget that I said, ‘Yes we can.”

The result of the changing landscape, Card said, was a budget of “wants.”

“Can I give you a contrarian view?” Card asked. “It’s not one that criticizes his wants, but it focuses on what our needs are. I am convinced that over the course of the last 20 years, America has lost its capacity to understand need. And instead, we focus on wants.”

Card knows the importance of readjusting priorities. First asked by Bush to lead his administration’s transition team in the fall of 2000, Card was eventually asked to stay on board and run a White House that would be a source of frenetic activity—and controversy—for two terms. He said the most difficult job for any chief of staff isn’t necessarily the job itself, but the relationship they hold with the president.

“You saw in the campaign about the 3 a.m. phone calls?” he asked. “There’s a 1 a.m. phone call to the chief of staff, and there are many more of those than there are 3 a.m. calls to the president.”

According to Card, it’s a position of quiet authority that required a delicate balance between friendship and job responsibilities. Card and Bush had been acquaintances for years, a bond that grew even closer when Card served in the cabinet of Bush’s father in the early 1990s.

“I came to recognize that the job of the chief of staff gave personality to the White House. The president gives personality to the country, to the executive branch. But it’s the chief of staff that gives personality to the White House,” Card said.

“But I also came to realize that if you are a chief of staff, you are staff in charge of the staff,” he said. “You’re really not much of a chief … As long as I was his staff, I was a staffer, and not his friend.”

A noble calling

Card said he is troubled that young people today don't see politics as a noble cause.

Card called it a wonderful job and an honorable way to serve his country—a call to public service that was inspired by his grandmother and nightly kitchen table conversations while growing up in Massachusetts.

“Before we could even pick up our fork, we had to repeat something from the newspaper that day, and as a result, there were arguments in every meal. I would, of course, talk about the Red Sox and the Celtics and the Bruins,” he said, “but inevitably, the discussions turned to public policy and to politics.”

“And my grandmother encouraged a debate. And she fostered an interest in our participation in the political process. And I’m troubled that the world of politics isn’t seen really as a noble cause today,” he said, saying there were probably few people in the room who would encourage their son or daughter to pursue a career as a civil servant.

Card’s career in politics began in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1975. Since then, he’s gone on to serve as the Secretary of Transportation under President George H. W. Bush, the president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association and vice president of government relations at General Motors.

Still, his five years leading the Bush White House was an experience he’ll never forget.

“Anybody who claims that they want to leave the White House is lying,” he said. “People need to leave the White House. Sometimes they need to leave for their own well-being. And when I left the White House, it was a wonderful day because I could be the president’s friend once again.”

For more on Lehigh's response to the financial crisis, visit the College of Business and Economics' special Financial Crisis Web page.

Story by Tom Yencho

Posted on Tuesday, April 14, 2009

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