Tag Archives: White House staff

On a (West) Wing and a Prayer: Obama This Day Is Daley Led

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  These meetings have been replaced by a greater reliance on written memorandum and tightened administrative procedures designed to insure memos are properly prepared and staffed out.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.

 

Rest In Peace Ted Sorensen

Ted Sorensen died today, a week after suffering a stroke. He was 82. Sorensen served for many years as John Kennedy’s chief staff assistant, beginning as a research aide to the newly elected Senator in 1953 and culminating with his role in Kennedy’s White House as Special Counsel.  Sorensen’s obituary as reported in various media outlets will undoubtedly cite his work drafting some of Kennedy’s most memorable speeches, including JFK’s celebrated 1961 inaugural address (“we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty”), as well as his assistance (how much assistance remains a matter of some controversy) in the writing of Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.

But Sorensen was much more than Kennedy’s wordsmith. As JFK’s Special Counsel (a title originally given to FDR’s Samuel Rosenman, who created the position Sorensen inherited) Sorensen sat astride a key decision, or action forcing, process in Kennedy’s White House.  In contrast to the modern White House, in which aides are organized according to specialized functions (economic or national security adviser, speechwriter, liaison to interest groups, chief of staff, etc.)  Kennedy’s White House was modeled after Franklin Roosevelt’s. That meant aides were generalists who were organized not by functional specialty, but by the daily decisions that flowed into the Oval Office. Sorensen sat astride the most important of these “action forcing” processes: the drafting of all public documents by which JFK developed and “sold” his legislative program and related policies.  In addition to crafting speeches, this meant drafting legislation and related messages to Congress, issuing statements on enrolled legislation, and reviewing executive orders, to cite only the most important duties entrusted to Sorensen.  Because Kennedy – as did FDR – preferred to manage his own staff, there was no chief of staff in his White House.  This meant that Sorensen reported directly to JFK, and that his role as Special Counsel largely mimicked JFK’s perspective as president.  Sorensen’s duties stand in distinct contrast to those of modern White House aides, whose narrower jurisdiction means that they are unable to fully appreciate the President’s more holistic and broader perspective on decisionmaking. What the modern White House staff disaggregates due to functional specialization, the chief of staff must reassemble for the President’s understanding.  Kennedy, in contrast, dealt with a few senior aides, including Sorensen, whose duties more nearly aligned with his job as President; there was no chief of staff to manage the White House on JFK’s behalf.  The FDR-Kennedy model began to break down during Johnson’s presidency, when Sorensen’s successor Joe Califano shed the speechwriting role, and it was completely lost to history when Richard Nixon became president and installed the prototype, including a chief of staff, for what has become the modern White House staff.  In later years Sorensen would be highly critical of the proliferation of White House positions, particularly within the speech writing staff.

By his own admission, a part of Sorensen died with Kennedy’s assassination in November, 1963. For a decade, his life had been defined by his service to Kennedy – almost every waking moment was devoted to serving this one man. In a particularly poignant section of his memoirs, Counselor: A Life at the Edge of History (which I strongly recommend), Sorensen describes how helpless he felt because he was not there – as he had been for 10 years – to answer the questions – What will happen to my country? Who will take care of Jackie and my children? – that he imagined the President asked himself after the first assassin’s bullet hit him, but before the second (or third) fatal shot occurred.  Sorensen, looking back at JFK’s assassination after almost half a century, writes, “I do not know whether I have ever fully recovered from John. F. Kennedy’s death. Time passed. Love and laughter helped. But the deep sadness of that time remained, only to be reinforced five years later by the murder of his brother Robert. Those two senseless tragedies robbed me of my future.”  Although Sorensen briefly flirted with a return to public service – running unsuccessfully for the Senate in New York, and agreeing to head the CIA under Carter only to see his nomination blocked – he spent his remaining years working primarily in a New York-based law firm while protecting the Kennedy legacy, beginning with his memoirs of the Kennedy years in his book Kennedy.

I met Sorensen late in his life, when a stroke had robbed him of most of his vision. Although he was hard at work on his own memoirs, he graciously agreed to write a short piece for a book I was co-editing honoring the life of Richard Neustadt.  Sorensen and Neustadt had worked closely during Kennedy’s presidency, and Neustadt had been poised to join the White House staff when Kennedy was assassinated.  In my brief dealings with Sorensen, he was extremely cordial, and demonstrated no sense of entitlement or superiority that I have sometimes detected in other former White House aides.

When I heard of Sorensen’s death, I thought of the sacrifice that those who work for presidents often make.  In his memoirs, he admits that his first marriage fell apart largely because his life was primarily devoted to serving John F. Kennedy.  In the late summer, 1963, shortly before Kennedy’s assassination, his wife – who had already been separated from Sorensen for three years – moved back with their three sons from Washington to her previous home in Wisconsin.  In one particularly moving remembrance, Sorensen describes how he tried desperately to carve time out of his busy schedule to throw a baseball with one of his sons on the Washington mall.  After Kennedy’s death, with his family gone, Sorensen eventually decided to dedicate his life to keeping Kennedy’s legacy and ideals alive.

Rest in Peace, Mr. Sorensen.  I hope you found some comfort in your later years.

Rahmbo’s Role: A Recipe for a Short Tenure?

The debate during the last several weeks regarding Rahm “Rahmbo” Emanuel’s role in the Obama White House provides an opportunity to revisit a topic that is one of my main research interests, and about which I’ve written extensively in academic journals: what is the most effective way for a president to organize his White House staff?  To anticipate my answer below: it’s not by having a chief of staff who serves – as Emanuel apparently does – as a de facto “prime minister” of government.

Note that my criticism of Emanuel’s role differs from that of progressives like Dan Froomkin and  Katrina vanden Heuvel, who argue that Emanuel’s brand of “purple centrism … is dangerous to Obama’s presidency”.  In part, the progressive critique dates back to the 2006 midterms, where Emanuel,  as the Democratic Party’s campaign committee chair, recruited moderate and conservative candidates who won races in normally Republican-leaning districts. Emanuel’s critics argue that Emanuel missed an opportunity to capitalize on the Democratic wave that year by recruiting more progressive Democrats to Congress.  Instead, these conservatives are now a roadblock to passing health care.  I think this is a dubious claim; as this American Prospect article points out, “only 12 of the 41 Democrats elected in 2006 number among the most conservative 20 percent of all House Democrats in the current Congress — which is to say that they are not dramatically more conservative… .”

Nor do I disagree with Emanuel’s defenders who portray him – not inaccurately – as the White House’s “voice of reason”.’  Instead, my criticism centers on the tension inherent in Emanuel’s expansive role as both chief of staff responsible for coordinating operations within the White House and chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill on behalf of the President’s legislative program. That role is described in some detail by Peter Baker in his New York Times magazine  article published last Sunday.  In Baker’s words, “Emanuel seems to serve as a virtual prime minister, the most powerful chief of staff since James Baker managed the White House during Ronald Reagan’s first term.” Baker summarizes Emanuel’s role this way:  “[Emanuel] meets with Obama at the beginning of each day and again at the end, in between dipping his hands into virtually everything the White House does, from economic policy to national security. In any meeting with the president, he sits to Obama’s left and is typically called on at the end to summarize arguments and present his recommendations. He works the phone and e-mail with energy, staying in touch each day in staccato fashion with a dizzying array of lawmakers, officials, lobbyists, journalists and political operatives.” That is consistent with the description in this article of Emanuel’s role: “According to almost everyone who has ever worked with him, he has an insatiable need to be in the mix, and he is deeply concerned with the news of the day. His office is the White House nerve center. ‘In order to get a final decision, everything needs to go through Rahm’s office,’ said a former administration official … .”

History suggests that chief of staffs like Emanual who serve as both chief political officer and who operate as the White House “nerve center” tend to attract criticism earlier and more extensively.  The result is that they become political liabilities much more quickly than do chief of staffs who serve either as chief political officer OR serve primarily as the administration’s traffic cop.  As evidence, consider the following table compiled by Andrew Cohen that lists every chief of staff who has served since Nixon’s administration, when the chief of staff role became an institutionalized part of the modern White House staff organization. (Note: it may be easier to view the table by clicking on it to view as a separate document.)

chief of staff

I’m currently putting together more detailed data regarding the time served by each of these chief of staffs, but using the years listed here by Cohen we see that the chiefs’ average tenure is about 2 ½ years.  However, this is a bit misleading, since not every chief of staff listed above had the opportunity to serve a full term. If we restrict our analysis to those seven chiefs who, like Emanual, took their post at the start of a presidential term, we see that the average tenure is closer to about 3 years.  Note, however, that this average figure obscures clear differences among the tenures of particular chiefs.  To understand why these tenures differ, I’ve constructed an admittedly crude table that attempts to place each chief in one of four boxes, depending on whether they served primarily in a political advising role, an administrative coordinating role, or both.  Within each box I also list the average number of years each “type” of aide served.  Again, this is a rough approximation of their time in office, but I think it illustrates my point.

Strong Political Role Weak Political Role
Strong Coordinator Sununu, Regan,  2 years Card, Haldeman 4.5 years
Weak Coordinator James Baker, Rumsfeld 3 years McClarty 1 year

Emanuel is often compared to James Baker, who, as Peter Baker writes in the Times piece “was also an experienced, savvy operator who took the arrows for his boss. Just as Emanuel is often criticized by the left for steering Obama toward the middle, Baker was considered a moderate who tempered Reagan’s more conservative instincts.”  But there is a difference. Baker, particularly early in his term, largely delegated administrative oversight to his deputy Dick Darman. And Baker’s influence within the White House was tempered by the countervailing presences of Ed Meese, Reagan’s chief policy adviser, and Mike Deaver who handled Reagan’s public side.

Admittedly, the data is at best suggestive.  There are surely other factors at play that might explain the different tenure rates.  Both John Sununu and Mack McClarty, for instance, had little national experience which may partly explain their early departures. On the other hand, Don Regan had already served four years as Treasury secretary before moving to the White House.  And it may be that aides who take on as much as Emanuel simply burn out more quickly through sheer physical exhaustion.

Nonetheless, the data is also consistent with my claim that the longest serving chief of staffs are those who either serve as the President’s political lobbyist, or who operate primarily behind the scenes as the White House staff manager, responsible for coordinating the actions of the various White House staff units.  In contrast, chiefs of staff who try to exercise both political control and serve as administrative coordinator frequently end up doing neither very well – a recipe for a very short tenure in the White House.

If health care fails to pass, and the Democrats lose control of the House in 2010, the pressure on Obama to revamp his staff will be immense.  As a skilled infighter, Emanual will be tough to remove (assuming he wants to retain his position).  But I would not be surprised if Obama “promotes” Emanual to political adviser, and turns over administrative control of the White House to someone else.

I’m coming for you Axelrod!

I realize that many of my students haven’t actually seen any of the Rambo movies.  If we need any more evidence that as a society we are truly slouching toward Gomorrah, it’s surely the failure of the current generation to view these cinematic masterpieces.  When it comes to acting, I can think of few individuals who possess the gravitas and sheer talent of  Sylvester Stallone.  I will always remember the evening I spent in Dumfries, Scotland,  attending the overseas premier of Stallone’s Rocky IV.  I was the lone American in an audience of Scots.  At the conclusion of this epic, all the Scots stood as one, applauding and cheering Rocky’s defeat of the Soviet boxer.  I remember wiping away a tear and thinking, this is why our country is a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.  Sly Stallone.

But I digress. The point of today’s post is not to celebrate Rambo, First Blood (although it deserves celebration), but instead to direct your attention to an article in today’s New York Times that drives home the point that I made in yesterday’s post about the survival skills of Rahm “Rahmbo” Emanuel, Obama’s embattled chief of staff.  In that post I indicated that in the battle of political dominance within the White House, Obama’s “campaign crowd” of senior White House staffers – Axelrod, Jarrett, Gibbs – were destined,  much like the pitiful law enforcement officers in First Blood (or any of Rambo’ adversaries for that matter), to be annihilated. Today’s article drives home that point.  In it Axelrod tries to rebut “Recent news reports [that] have cast the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, as the administration’s chief pragmatist, and Mr. Axelrod, by implication, as something of a swooning loyalist.”

A careful read of the article is actually quite revealing on two counts. First, in the middle of the interview, President Obama walks in, “unannounced”, to confer with Axelrod about an upcoming speech about health care.  If the point here is to suggest that the President’s visit was “spontaneous” I should point out that it is also true that I will be the Red Sox opening day pitcher.  Instead, this was almost surely an orchestrated move – as was the entire interview – designed to signal that Axelrod still had the President’s ear.   I made this point yesterday, but it bears repeating: in the Darwinian environment of White House politics, perceptions of influence and access are everything, because staffers lack any independent base of power.  Once you are perceived to lose the President’s ear, your effectiveness is nil.  I  suggested that in the next several days we should look for signs from Obama signaling his support for Emanual.   Instead, what we see is the President bolstering Axelrod’s standing – a sure sign that Emanual is winning the media battle.

The reason for this interview, then is to both signal Axelrod’s prominence within the White House hierarchy and at the same time downplay the notion that there is a rift between Axelrod and Emanuel.  Thus, we read: “Mr. Axelrod is often at the president’s side; he sits in on policy and national security meetings and is routinely the last person he talks to before making a decision. He directs the administration’s external presentation, overseeing polls, focus groups and speeches and appearing on the Sunday shows. Mr. Emanuel describes Mr. Axelrod as ‘an integrator of the three P’s’ — press, policy and politics — ‘and how they make a whole.’”

The fact that the White House took steps to set up this interview is an indication that they take talk of a divided senior staff seriously, and are actively trying to tamp down the controversy.

The second fascinating aspect of the interview is that much of it centers on whether Axelrod – and by extension Obama – has failed to articulate a clear message or overarching philosophy about where the President wants to take the government.  “[W]hat happened to the Mr. Axelrod who so effectively marketed Mr. Obama, the candidate, as a change agent” critics wonder.

By now, I hope you realize just how ridiculous this question is.  The promise of  “change” on the campaign trail has little relevance to the difficulty of actually governing based on solving problems of extraordinary complexity against the backdrop of a polarized Congress, a weak Presidency, and an uncertain public.  It’s one thing to run against a discredited incumbent party on the nebulous promise of change – it’s another to put forth particular solutions to incredibly complex problems, particularly when those solutions are inherently divisive and when the President lacks the capacity to compel support for his policies.

Obama’s “failure” is not one of message – it’s being held accountable, fairly or not, for a stagnant economy, near double-digit unemployment, a stymied health care bill and an ongoing war on terrorism.  Nonetheless, should the Democrats lose their majorities in one or both chambers of Congress this November, the pundits will march on the White House, demanding that heads roll.  If so, it will be Axelrod’s and not Emanuel’s that is likely to go first on the chopping block.

Correction: The original post said that Rocky III ended with Rocky defeating the Soviet boxer – an alert reader (of the much maligned younger generation, no less) informs me that it was Rocky IV.  There is hope for our country, after all.