Are Deadlines Dangerous?

This is a partial transcript from "Your World with Neil Cavuto," April 6, 2004, that was edited for clarity.

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NEIL CAVUTO, HOST: Well, setting deadlines, dangerous or absolutely necessary as a leader? Let’s ask a pretty good leader in his own right. I’m talking about Jack Welch, the former chairman and CEO of General Electric. He joins us from Boston. In Seattle, presidential historian Richard Shenkman. And in Washington, Eleanor Clift, the contributing editor at Newsweek and a Fox News political analyst.

Welcome all.

Jack, to you first. This June 30 deadline, should the president have committed to that?

JACK WELCH, FMR. GE CHAIRMAN AND CEO: Well, I think I’d rather speak to the point of whether the role of a CEO -- a CEO lives by deadlines. He uses them to set goals for the organization, to motivate the organization, to test the leadership, to move competitively.

Politically, this is a lot more difficult. And if we missed, say we have a date for June 30 for a new jet engine, well, if we don’t get there, we all know we didn’t make it. We reassess it and get a new plan and go forward afterwards.

Now, politically, that is a little more difficult, because every time you set a deadline, you have everybody looking at you and picking at it. Take the 9/11 Commission. That became an enormous thing.

Here, we have a deadline that has brought all kinds of constituents out of the woodwork, and we have all hell breaking loose. And, as we go forward, the president and his team will have to assess whether or not that handover is, in fact, right for June 30. But, this is something you have to always re-look at as the situation develops.

CAVUTO: I’m just wondering, he talks about the situation developing, Rich Shenkman, and we’re seeing a tense situation developing in Iraq as we speak. It’s described as very fierce fighting right now. This is some of the video coming to us from Iraq.

What do you make of the June 30 doability deadline now? How doable is that?

RICAHRD SHENKMAN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, I don’t think the June 30 deadline is a good deadline. And I think the president pushed himself into a little bit of a corner by fixing a specific date by which we were going to hand over sovereignty.

President Kennedy once railed on a speechwriter who had written into one of his speeches a hard number on the budget. And the president said, never, never, never hang a hard number on me, because then I can’t wiggle out if circumstances change. And that is what has happened here.

He should have let Paul Bremer establish a date and him keep a little bit of presidential distance from it. Because he’s now lost his room for maneuver.

If he moves the date under pressure, he’s going to look weak and indecisive and hand his enemies an issue. If he sticks by it and all hell breaks loose, well, then he’s going to look like somebody who didn’t know what he was doing. So either way, it’s not a good position for him to be in.

And the thing about the presidency is that events are almost always driving the agenda. Even Abraham Lincoln at the top of the Civil War, when he was practically a dictator, the only president we have ever had who was close to being a dictator, he said, I frankly admit I am not in control of events. Events are in control of me.

The president needs to remember that.

CAVUTO: Eleanor, is there a danger with deadlines?

ELEANOR CLIFT, NEWSWEEK CONTRIBUTING EDITOR: Well, I think, at best, with this particular deadline, the best the president can hope for is a symbolic turnover. But the turnover is not symbolic to people on the ground in Iraq. And the Shiites, who the majority population, are assuming they are going to be in control. And setting a deadline in this particular case also sends a mixed message.

I think people on the ground in Iraq and people on Capitol Hill don’t know whether that deadline means we are staying or we are leaving. There is a lot of confusion. And this White House has invested a lot in creating the image of President Bush as somebody who is steadfast. But, in reality, he has shifted on the 9/11 Commission and its creation, whether Condi Rice could testify or not, the creation of the Homeland Security Department. He’s going to have to shift on this one as well.

CAVUTO: Jack Welch, do you find something a little disingenuous -- and some of the critics on this whole deadline for the president are the same ones who said we ought to have a game plan for getting out of Iraq, we ought to get out of there as soon as possible. Now they’re criticizing the president for saying it is too soon.

WELCH: Look, I think he got -- as the previous speakers have said, he got boxed into a corner here. Unlike a CEO, who can set deadlines and move them, a president has a much tougher game. And I thought the line of hanging a hard number that President Kennedy used is probably pretty appropriate here.

CAVUTO: But, Jack, what if you were the president of the United States, Jack, and you knew you had to have a game plan for getting us out of Ira? How would you have handled it? What would you have said?

WELCH: Look, I would get a game plan, and I would have a serious game plan as to how I would deal with the June 30. And then I would make my point clear to the public, and I would articulate it over and over again as to why I had to change if I had to change. But I wouldn’t let other people -- I’d try my best to define it for myself.

Look, events do take over situations here. And we have had a lot of things happen here in the last 120 days here that probably weren’t anticipated. And we may have to alter our plan. But that is not something that a leader shouldn’t be able to handle with clear articulation and rational...

CAVUTO: But, Richard Shenkman, your argument is that is what makes a leader look weak, right?

SHENKMAN: Well, it will be used by his enemies as evidence of weakness. Really, he shouldn’t have gotten himself into the situation to begin with. Now that he is here, to be honest, he ought to level with the American people about really what is involved with Iraq.

You know, it is not a matter of being there for a year or two. If we are serious about having a democracy in Iraq, we are talking about a commitment of 30 years or 50 years. That is what it took Germany, Japan and Korea.

CAVUTO: But, wait a minute, Richard. To be fair to the president, I mean, he did outline that this -- the war on terror itself -- and he included Iraq in that. No one can argue, as Eleanor and others have, that this shouldn’t be used in that scope. But that it would be a multi-decade battle. So it wasn’t as if he didn’t tell people that.

SHENKMAN: Well, he said the battle with terrorism is going to take years and years. But he has not really leveled with us in saying just what kind of commitment is required to turn Iraq into kind of an American-style democracy.

This is an enormous challenge. It’s going to cost many, many more -- hundreds of billions of dollars than we have already spent. And maybe if he wanted to go before the country now, use the crisis as an opportunity to say things are very difficult there, this is what we need to do, I think he’d get credit for being visionary there.

CAVUTO: Do you agree, Eleanor?

CLIFT: Yes. The American people are watching this unfold. The president’s enemies, as you put it, I assume you mean his political critics, a lot of them are saying we need more troops in Iraq, not fewer. They are not calling for a pullout.

Elections in Afghanistan have been postponed three months. And people recognize the reality there.

I think people are wondering how the president can continue to suggest that things are going well in Iraq, when we can all see with our own eyes that there was no plan. Or if there was a plan in place, it has fallen apart and it is time to reassess.

CAVUTO: So, Eleanor, you don’t see anything going well? You don’t see anything about the oil that is now back on, the businesses that are back in business, the electricity grids that are back and responding to the people’s needs? You ignore all of that?

CLIFT: The primary function of an occupying power is to restore security. And the Iraqi people are not safe. The reconstruction teams going into Iraq are not safe. The American troops are targets. And so that is case number one.

CAVUTO: Jack Welch, what do you think of that?

WELCH: Well, I think it is an overstatement. I think if you look at the polls as to how the Iraqi people feel that were out in the last week or two, you see 70 percent feeling pretty good about this.

Now, you do have a lot of trouble here. My one word for the president would be, candor with the American people, sooner rather than later, about this situation. And clarify his plan for the future.

CAVUTO: All right. Jack Welch, final word on this subject.

I want to thank Eleanor Clift as well, and Richard Shenkman. Thank you all. Great perspective.

CLIFT: Thank you.

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