MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
We've been discussing cooperation and compromise this week in our NPR series Crossing the Divide. Today, I talked with the White House chief of staff, Joshua Bolten, about working with a Congress where opposition to the president's Iraq policy is growing among Democrats and Republicans alike.
I asked Mr. Bolten about the non-binding resolutions in the Senate that opposed the president's troop buildup.
JOSHUA BOLTEN: There will be a lot of disagreement about the president's Iraq foreign policy going forward. We know that. The president is well aware of how much discomfort there is in the country about the path that he has chosen to pursue in Iraq, and has no illusions about that.
But while we recognize that, we also know that there are opportunities to work together on a lot of other issues. And he laid out four really big ones in his State of the Union address on which on some fundamental principles there is agreement between the two parties or at least there's opportunity for agreement between the two parties.
And we're going to try to use this year to take advantage of those areas of common ground and put some accomplishments across the goal line in those areas, even in these final two years of the president's term.
BLOCK: How do you respond to a man who's become one of your toughest critics on the Republican side, that's Chuck Hagel of Nebraska? He said yesterday there is no strategy. This is a Ping-Pong game with American lives.
BOLTEN: I don't think that kind of rhetoric is either accurate or helpful. General Petraeus is going over to Iraq with a new strategy on how best to try to secure Baghdad. Now, there remains the question of will this strategy succeed. We believe it has a very good chance of success, especially if the United States remains committed to it.
But I don't think there's any doubt that there is a strategy and a way forward. And by the way, it's a strategy on which all of the president's chief military commanders agree and are committed to.
BLOCK: Do you fear that there could be so much ill will generated in Congress on both sides of the aisle that it will be very hard for you to go back to Congress on other issues that are important to you and get something done?
BOLTEN: Yeah, you have to be concerned about spillover from disagreement on Iraq into other areas. And to some degree there will inevitably be some hangover of that issue into other areas. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't do the people's business.
One of the - we were obviously very disappointed here in the White House when Republicans lost the majority in both houses in the recent election. But one of the silver linings of that is that with Democrats now in control of both houses, the White House and the new Democratic majority now share some responsibility for putting accomplishments across the goal line for the American people.
And so I think the - in a way, the new Democratic majority creates opportunities for the White House that didn't exist in the past to get some bipartisan cooperation for some of the biggest issues of the day, like immigration, like energy, like health care, like education, which require bipartisan cooperation to get legislation done.
BLOCK: There's now a Democratic-controlled Congress that has said that it will investigate the Bush administration on a number of issues from detainee abuse to domestic surveillance, to fraud in Iraq contracts. What's the White House's position on those investigations?
BOLTEN: Of course, we'll cooperate with any investigations that the Congress wants to pursue. We believe in vigorous and legitimate oversight by the Congress. I don't think political witch hunts are going to be particularly productive or well received here in Washington.
BLOCK: Do you think that's in store?
BOLTEN: You know, I hope not. And so far there - I'm pleased to see that there aren't strong indications that that's the direction in which the new Democratic leadership wants to go. They've said explicitly that is not the direction in which they want to go. And I take them at their word.
Now, are we going to have some tough oversight hearings and so on? Yes. And that's fine. Let's have a good debate about the policies, but the sort of jabbing at the balance of authority between the congressional branch and the executive branch is something that's built into our system, but doesn't need to break out into open political warfare, which doesn't really serve anybody well.
BLOCK: There have been a lot of complaints within Congress that the administration in fact has not cooperated, has not provided information and that's been a sore spot for some time.
BOLTEN: It has been. But it's been a sore spot for well over 200 years that the executive branch guards its prerogatives to run the government, to serve as the executive of government without 535 individual executives up on Capitol Hill. There is a certain degree of confidentiality that needs to be maintained within the executive branch in order for us to do our jobs properly.
If every document that anybody sends to anybody else, every conversation is subject to being exposed in a congressional hearing, the advice given to the president subject to being exposed in a congressional hearing, then the president is not going to get candid advice from his advisers. We're not going to be able to perform our functions properly.
That's not a new tension. That tension has been in the system from the beginning and we'll be working to ensure that the balance is there.
BLOCK: When you were brought in as chief of staff, you were brought in to some extent to shake things up, to invigorate the president's second term. If you look at things now, his poll numbers are at an all-time low, your party lost majorities in both houses of Congress. How do you turn that around?
BOLTEN: Well, I'm proud of the work that the White House has done. And I think you see that reflected in the president's State of the Union message, where you rarely see a president with such a bold agenda and such a strong agenda. Even at the beginning of a term, much less in the final two years of the term.
That said, we're at a moment where the president is resolute in fighting a very difficult war on terror that is weighing on the American public. We recognize that. That doesn't mean that you give up in the war on terror or you do something that is more comfortable in the short run but exposes this country to national security risks in the long run.
We just need to recognize that we're leaning into something of a headwind. And what we can do here at the White House is do everything we can, A, to make that war on terror go as well as it possibly can. And I believe that's reflected in the president's new way forward in Iraq. And B, we can try to explain it as well as we can to the American public.
The president often reminds us we're not here to be popular. It's better to be popular, I guarantee you. And I hope ultimately we will be able to reverse the decline in the popularity of some of the policies that we've pursued here. But in the end it's going to be the results that count, and it's going to be how well has this president done in promoting a strong economy, in making sure that all those who need the help from the government and need opportunity get the opportunities that they have, and most important, how well has the president done in protecting this country. I think the record in the end will show that the president's done very well.
BLOCK: If you can't reverse that trend in popularity, though, for the next two years that he's in the White House, doesn't that require that you shift strategy somewhat, that something's going wrong and you need to address that?
BOLTEN: Well, the main thing we need to do is make the underlying realities go well. The president's strategies on the economy have been enormously successful. We're in one of the best economic periods we've had in modern times.
BLOCK: That's not helping him in the polls, though.
BOLTEN: And, but it's not the polls that are ultimately going to count. If maybe if the president were running for re-election, you'd care more about the polls. But even then, this president has never been, ever been driven by polls. And if you allow yourself to be driven by polls, you allow yourself to be run into some important policy mistakes that redound to the detriment of the United States.
BLOCK: Joshua Bolten, White House chief of staff. Thanks very much.
BOLTEN: Thanks for having me.