Yesterday’s announcement that President Obama’s chief of staff Rahm (Rahmbo) Emanuel is resigning to run for Mayor of Chicago provides a nice opportunity to revisit a topic I’ve addressed in previous posts (see here and here) regarding the tenure of presidential advisers in general and chief of staffs in particular.
My earlier posts were prompted by the arguments made by several pundits earlier this year advising Obama to fire Emanuel as chief of staff. These pundits, most (but not all) from the Left of the ideological spectrum, claimed that Emanual’s pragmatic, inside-the-beltway, half-a-loaf approach to policy making had undercut Obama’s ability to fulfill key campaign promises, from closing Guantanamo to reversing the major policy elements of the Bush-era war on terror to passing robust health care legislation to getting energy legislation through. Almost immediately these articles were met with a second set of columns, presumably issued with Emanuel’s approval if not orchestrated by him, that suggested that rather than fire Emanuel, Obama would do better to start taking more of his chief of staff’s advice. Indeed, these columnists suggested that the President’s biggest policy failures were typically caused by a failure to listen to Emanuel’s recommendations.
These exchanges prompted me to write several blog posts that essentially made two points: first, that high profile chief of staffs like Emanuel who function both as process managers and policy advocates historically experience a much shorter White House shelf life than do chief of staffs who perform only one or the other of these two functions. That is, it is extremely difficult for a chief of staff to both make the White House trains run on time AND determine which trains stop at the President’s Oval Office station and in which order. Second – and somewhat in tension with point one – I indicated that Emanuel’s strong media ties and equally robust connections with Washington powerbrokers developed through his many years on Capitol Hill and working for President Clinton meant he would likely survive any attempts via media leaks to pressure him into resigning. In this regard, I suggested, he was much like his movie alter-ego played by Sylvester Stallone in the various Rambo movies – a one-man wrecking machine that no man, law or President could stop. Emanuel would step down, I argued, when he was ready, and not before.
This is why I think Emanuel’s decision to resign and run for mayor is a fortuitous event for both him and Obama. Recall that Emanuel had been reluctant to take on the chief of staff position in the first place, and has always preferred electoral politics over working as a staff manager. By seeking the Chicago mayoral post, he has an opportunity to resume doing what he loves best. Obama, meanwhile, can use still another resignation by a senior staff member to drive home the point that he is ready embrace “change” in the run-up to the 2010 midterm and, ultimately, his own reelection in 2012.
There is a second reason why Emanuel’s resignation is significant: it lends credence to my typology (theory is too strong a word) that purports to explain why some chiefs of staffs serve for a long time while others have very short tenures. In all there have been 22 individuals designated as “chief of staff” beginning with Sherman Adams’ appointment by Eisenhower in 1953 as as the first such chief. On average, these individuals serve about 2 ½ years. Based on this, Emanuel’s tenure of just less than two years is not that much shorter than the overall mean rate. However, when we restrict the analysis to only those seven prior chief of staffs who came in at the start of a presidency, we see that Emanuel’s tenure is much shorter; these previous seven served about three years on average (a figure that includes Ford’s chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld who did not have the opportunity to serve a full term), or almost twice as long as Emanuel time in the White House.
What explains Emanuel’s comparatively short tenure? I suggest it is because he was a “strong” chief of staff who performed the two somewhat contradictory roles cited above: engineer and conductor. To manage the White House effectively, other White House staff and cabinet members must believe the chief of staff is an “honest broker” who will scrupulously avoid taking sides in a policy debate, and who will not allow his own policy views to bias the policymaking process. As a policy advocate and legislative strategist, however, Emanuel not only shaped debate within the White House – he also negotiated on Obama’s behalf with legislators on Capitol Hill. As the following chart suggests, “strong” chief of staffs like Emanuel who combine both roles tend not to last more than two years in the White House. (Warning: this is a crude typology meant to be suggestive – tenure rates are affected by many factors, including whether the President serves two terms or not. Use with care).
|Strong Political Role||Weak Political Role|
|Strong Coordinator||Sununu, Regan, 2 years||Adams, Card, Haldeman 7 years|
|Weak Coordinator||James Baker, Rumsfeld 3 years||McClarty 1 year|
If accurate, then, my typology suggests Emanuel wasn’t likely to last much more than a couple of years as chief of staff, if that. The opportunity to run for Mayor thus afforded the perfect opportunity for Obama to allow Emanual to resign before he became a potential liability. It’s win-win.
Of course, Emanual’s resignation may provide a window of opportunity – how well Obama takes advantage of this window is another question. Much depends on who replaces Emanual. For now, that person is Peter Rouse, a long time congressional aide who spent six years as Obama’s chief of staff. Initial news stories suggest Rouse does not want to stay very long as chief of staff, but if the President asks him to take on the job on a permanent basis, he will almost certainly accede to Obama’s request.
Rouse’s appointment, temporary or not, provides a good opportunity to examine this other facet of the staffing process: historically, what do presidents look for when replacing their first chief of staff? In my next post I’ll examine this issue.