David Frum

01.10.12

‘I Like Being Able to Fire People’

It would be better if more presidents were comfortable with firing.

Mitt Romney is under fire (briefly I trust) for remarking, “I like being able to fire people.” The Rick Perry campaign has even made a ringtone out of the soundbite. 

In context, of course, the remark has a very different—and wholly commendable—meaning. Romney was explaining the importance of portable individual health insurance:

"I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means if you don’t like what they do, you can fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. You know if someone doesn’t give me a good service that I need, I want to say I’m going to go get someone else to provide that service to me."

But let's suppose Romney was guilty as charged. The fact is, presidents (being politicians) get into much more trouble because they hesitate to fire than because they overenjoy it. Donald Rumsfeld lasted for years after it became apparent that his management of the Iraq War was failing. President Obama won't take action against Eric Holder, not after he bollixed the trial of Khalid Sheikh Muhammed, who has to date faced neither the promised civilian trial nor the substituted military commission. It was son George W. who had to carry the message to White House Chief of Staff John Sununu that he must go, because President George H.W. Bush could not bear to do it. For 13 miserable years, Franklin Roosevelt flinched from firing an incompetent and obnoxious White House cook.

Similar stories could be told about Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Even the ultra-irascible Richard Nixon delivered bad news in writing via messenger.

If Romney does happen to feel less reluctance to fire staffers and officials than recent chief executives, that could be a presidential feature, not a bug.