The Sequel to Rahmbo, First Blood: New Blood (Part I?)

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.



  1. Matt, my experience suggests that the most important aspect of leadership is picking good managers and then motivating them to work together.

    There is nothing in Obama’s background that suggests he is good at either of these skills. George W Bush was much better at this.

    You are right about Friedman being wrong.


  2. Jack – If you are right, one explanation might be rooted in prior experiences. Obama’s is primarily legislative, Bush’s executive. It might be interesting to correlate chief of staffs’ tenures with presidential administrative background. I’ll look into this.

  3. What type of Chief of Staff do you see Rouse being? Obviously it’ll be hard to follow Rahmbo in terms of political influence – or at least presence. In retrospect, it seems as if Chief of Staff wasn’t the best role for Rahm, as he appears much more interested (like you pointed out) in the legislative and political side of things than in the administrative area.

  4. To what extent do you think that high-level cabinet tenures could also fit into this typology?

    It would be interesting to apply this typology to Lawrence Summers and Robert Gates. Gates seems to be pushing more than a typical DoD towards administrative restructuring in the Pentagon and is managing two wars, so it would be interesting to see how long he will stick around.

  5. Jahd – Interesting question. Note that Summers worked in the White House staff, while Gates is a cabinet official – as such, they operate under slightly different dynamics. The most significant difference is that cabinet officials require Senate confirmation, whereas White House staffers do not. Although both serve at the pleasure of the President, cabinet officials tend to be more responsive to actors other than the President, whereas White House aides are much more responsive to the President. Note also that Gates, as a Republican holdover, has already made it clear that he’s not interested in serving as Defense secretary for an extended period. But neither position is the exact equivalent of the chief of staff.

  6. Zach – I think that in terms of operating style, Rouse will differ considerably from Rahmbo – he’ll be more understated, less confrontational and more likely to operate behind the scenes, away from media scrutiny. This is not a surprise – when a chief of staff is replaced, presidents typically choose a replacement who compensates for the perceived weaknesses of their predecessor. In this respect, Rouse will differ considerably from Emanuel.

    In the larger picture, however, I don’t think Rouse will change much in terms of policy or how the White House operates. He’s basically an insider, someone very familiar to Obama, and who has been a behind the scenes operator in the Obama administration since Obama’s inauguration. But that doesn’t mean nothing will change. My biggest concern is that by choosing someone who is an insider and who is familiar, Obama is losing a source of independent views and someone who is willing to push back against the president. The biggest danger for presidents is that over time they tend to surround themselves with people who share their views and are less likely to disagree with what the president wants. In replacing Rahmbo with Rouse, I worry that Obama is losing that independent voice. The great danger for presidents is a tendency over time to close the gates and circle the guard by surrounding themselves with like-minded advisers. Rouse may be an indication that Obama is falling prey to this tendency. One of Rahmbo’s great virtues is that he had no hesitation about disagreeing with Obama – that is the most important ingredient for an effective presidential adviser.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *