Why the White House Hates Process Stories

The fecund Monday news cycle almost made me miss a milestone of sorts: this White House managed to exist for nearly six months without experiencing the panic that a patented New York Times process story can produce. Jackie Calmes broke the streak (finally), with her piece on tensions among the administration's chief economic policy advisers. What makes the article all the more remarkable is the way the administration tried to contain what could have been a pretty damning pastiche of scenes from inside the West Wing.  They gave Calmes access to all the players and armed each one of them with the same message: acknowledge that Larry Summers is a bit of a character sometimes, acknowledge that brilliant people debating major policy in times of crisis often let off steam, but be faithful to the integrity of the process and respectful of your colleagues' contributions.

Had Calmes not been able to talk to Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, or to Larry Summers, or to Christina Romer, the story would undoubtedly have had more of that snap-sounding impact. Calmes managed to advance a few good news nuggets, identifying the sides in key economic debates, hinting that Ben Bernanke might be reappointed as chair of the Fed, and taking readers into the debate over whether to rescue Chrysler.  Overall, though, one is left with the impression that, while Larry Summers might be as mercurial and hard-headed as always, he runs a pretty good National Economic Council process. Plenty of views are expressed, and openly -- and with a few exceptions, he welcomes the dissent. And in the end, and I think this is the saving grace from the White House's POV -- the President makes the decision and his team agrees to implement it.  No harm done.   Still, given the allergy of senior administration officials to process stories -- by no means an uncommon malady that afflicts White Houses -- one can almost hear the exhales that Calmes's story wasn't as bad as it could have been. At the same time, I can hear the gears clanging in the heads of those officials who make decisions about granting reporters access to decision makers: this...is...why...we...hate...process....stories.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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