Predictably, Obama’s chief of staff Bill Daley is coming in for criticism recently (see also here) regarding how he is running the White House on the President’s behalf. The criticisms surfaced against the backdrop of Democratic strategist James Carville’s recent broadside arguing that in light of the Republican victories in the two recent special House elections it’s time for Obama “to panic” and “start firing people”. Although Carville denied targeting Daley, pundits have been quick to make the connection between Carville’s statement and the latet criticism from other sources regarding Daley’s performance. Those criticisms run the gamut from Daley’s failure to clear the date for Obama’s recent jobs speech with House Speaker John Boehner, necessitating rescheduling the event, to limiting staff members’ access to the President to failing to consult with senior Democrats in Congress. One specific criticism focuses on Daley’s decision to cut to once-a-week the 8:30 formerly daily White House meeting of mid-level aides that had followed the smaller 7:30 meeting of senior White House aides. The decision to cut the meetings was designed to free up time for Obama’s senior staff to perform other functions, but it rankled mid-level White House aides because it deprived them of face time with senior White House advisers. These meetings have been replaced by a greater reliance on written memorandum and tightened administrative procedures designed to insure memos are properly prepared and staffed out.
Without commenting on the specific merits of these criticisms, I think it is worth putting them in their historical context. First, whenever a President begins to lose political clout, supporters begin targeting senior White House officials and cabinet members, rather than aim their barbs directly at the president. The most prominent target is usually the chief of staff; indeed, serving as a “javelin catcher” is part of the job description for this position, and in this case Daley is no exception. Second, the reduction in staff meetings, an increased emphasis on written memorandum and a general movement to tighten administrative procedures while reducing staff access to the President is a pattern almost every recent White House – particularly those run by “policy wonk” Democratic presidents – has followed dating back to Jimmy Carter. Although Carter and Clinton and now Obama took office promising an inclusive, open-door staffing pattern at the start of their presidencies, they inevitably adopted a more restrictive staff system in which fewer aides had walk-in privileges as time went on. The reason is that each realized that the immersion in policy and administrative detail often came at a cost in terms of time management and overall efficiency. In each case the President gradually ceded greater gatekeeping authority to their chief of staff (in Carter’s case it meant recognizing the need for a chief of staff in the first place), and in each instance the change precipitated grumbling from mid-level aides – usually veterans from the president’s campaign – who saw their access to their boss reduced and who were not shy about leaking their dissatisfaction to the press. And so it is with Obama and Daley – according to this Politico story “Daley’s brisk, officious, closed-door corporate style has soured some White House staffers who think he’s pinching Obama’s access to his own people, depriving him of a wider variety of opinions at a time when coming up with creative solutions to the country’s economic malaise — and the president’s political slump — are at a premium While Daley has brought a new level of efficiency to the day-to-day operations of a White House buffeted by two years of Emanuel’s creative chaos, he’s remains an outsider to many of the campaign veterans who make up the core of Obama’s staff.”
But while news accounts cite Daley as the source of the staffing unrest, the reality is that the cause runs much deeper than his management style. Instead, history suggests that the change in staffing patterns Obama’s White House underwent is simply the latest manifestation of the adjustments almost all incoming presidents make as they begin to understand their administrative needs, particularly the necessity to preserve their most precious commodity: time. The longer a president is in office, the more he feels the need to husband his time and focus on priorities. This is particularly the case with those presidents who by temperament and prior experience are used to delving deeply into the weeds of policy debate and immersing themselves in administrative detail. Invariably, once in the Oval Office they find themselves overwhelmed by the relentless pressure created by the steady stream of appointments and daily decisions that reach their desk, and they seek ways to reduce that flow. That response usually takes two forms: reducing staff access to the President, and disciplining administrative procedures to save the President’s time. In the tradeoff between conserving the president’s time and maximizing his access to information and advisers, then, time management almost always win. This presidency is no exception.
It is tempting to blame Daley for his “officious, closed-door corporate style” of White House management – one that critics claim threatens to cut Obama off from new ideas and advice. But it is a style that reflects the reality of administrative life in the White House. Almost all presidents and their campaign aides enter the White House thinking they will govern through an inclusive, open-door administrative style. In Obama’s defense, he was less naive than most, as indicated by his choice of veteran White House aide Emanuel as his first chief of staff (although this book suggests Emanuel was not his first choice.) Even under Emanuel, however, there is evidence suggesting that Obama’s White House suffered from administrative overload in its first few months. I will deal with this in a later post. For now, however, rather than blame Bill Daley for the current state of affairs, critics should instead focus on their inflated expectations for what presidents, and their aides, can hope to accomplish.