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  These meetings have been replaced by a greater reliance on written memorandum and tightened administrative procedures designed to insure memos are properly prepared and staffed out.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



  1. Matt, does the “Chicago Connection” with Daly, Emanuel and dozens of others trouble you. Too many “like thinking” advisors?


  2. Jack,

    Great question. I’m actually doing a study now of backgrounds of presidential advisers, in part to see how much presidents recruit advisers from their campaigns to work in the White House, and how much geographical diversity there is among the senior White House staff. My initial impression is that most presidents tend to rely on a corps of senior staff who often have similar backgrounds. Think Kennedy and his Boston mafia, or Carter and the Georgia mafia, Bush 2 with his Texans, etc. But there are notable exceptions – Eisenhower really didn’t know Sherman Adams at all before the 1952 campaign, and John Sununu was not a Bushie before being appointed as chief of staff. I think the key, as you suggest, is not geographic uniformity so much as ideological uniformity. In Obama’s case, I don’t think Emanual and Daley, despite the Chicago connection, can be classified as having similar operating styles or even political outlooks. True, they are both political pragmatists, but Emanual had a deeper knowledge of Congress, while Daley is more at home in the corporate world. This is not to dismiss your suggestion regarding the like-mindedness of the Chicago crowd entirely, however. But I would point the finger elsewhere – at the President’s relative lack of experience on the national stage. The problems of a uniform outlook that you cite become more pronounced under a President who has not been around long enough to cultivate a broad range of advisers. That may be the case with Obama. I’ll try to develop this point in a longer post.

  3. Afternoon Matt-

    I’ve been reading your blog for only a short time (mid-August, I think was my initiation), but I really appreciate as a resource or, maybe, recourse what you write for its rigor and wider historical perspective I haven’t found in other media and that I miss from school. So thank you for writing.

    I have a question that only partly depends on a vague sense I’ve gotten while here. The vague sense is that you may assess certain deficiencies in the presidency of Obama to have been a result of ill-stared qualities in him from the offing, and the accomplishments of his presidency to be, well, middling. My point isn’t, though, to make a contentious point and ask you for your assessment of his presidency, as views of certain accomplishments, I think you’d say, will always be reoriented by later aftereffects.

    My question has more to do with how a person might arrive at that assessment, and in doing so might have moderated other factors and predetermined parts of his view. In an earlier post (the last two paragraphs of this one, whose title is kind of tendentious but probably for hook-purposes, though gotta be honest its what informs my vague sense http://sites.middlebury.edu/presidentialpower/2010/03/14/is-obama-destined-to-fail-the-character-question/ ), you mention political? judgment, experience, and values as determinants for a president’s success, or determinants of predicting a president’s success? You also mentioned that there may or may not be the available opportunity for a president to succeed- that is, there can be a “good” president at a “bad” time.

    In Obama’s case, what might be factors that would suggest a lack of opportunity for success? One of the things you emphasize is Obama’s executive inexperience, though I remember this being popularly compared to Lincoln’s. By emphasizing the personal qualities of the president, such as executive inexperience, could the vague sense assessment above be minimizing the obstacle of his political opposition? (Though I don’t think it skews my question, I might declare my bias and say that that Tea Party is some crazy stuff, though I’m young and haven’t seen the likes of it before.) Have the Republican Party and the Tea Party been relatively pernicious opposition? Could we say that he was particularly not a good candidate for a presidency largely framed by a great recession? My underlying question, if I generalize all those others, is how in Obama’s case can we assess his time so that we can judge his presidency?

    Thanks again!

    As a p.s., your blog made me remember my one-time government professor at UT Austin who may be an unacquainted colleague of yours. Whether his work is in your area (it seems near the interests of this blog), I always thought his voice was valuable for uncommonly even judgment, one of those determinants above. I think that’s apparent to students, and hopefully it comes across in his work in your field: http://www.utexas.edu/cola/depts/government/faculty/bb276

  4. Adam,

    Welcome aboard. We’ve had a big jump in readership since I began posting on the debt default negotiations, and I encourage you to stay with us and participate in the comments section, and spread the word to your friends (and enemies too!). We have a good group here – thoughtful people who are not, fortunately, of one mind set but who take opposing views seriously.

    You were fortunate to study with Bruce Buchanan – he’s one of my favorite presidency scholars in large part because he allows the evidence, rather than ideology, to steer his conclusions. This is more rare than you might think, even among academics.

    As for your very good question – I can’t possibly answer it in a comment except to say that when people ask me what I find most surprising about Obama’s presidency, I typically reply that the most surprising aspect is how unsurprising it has been. Those who have been reading my posts starting in 2008 will know that I have sounded a caution from day 1 regarding overestimating what Obama could feasibly accomplish. That warning was based primarily on the political context in which he took office – particularly the polarized state of politics but also the institutional weakness of the office more generally. But it was also based on his general lack of experience at the national level. Given these factors, he was never going to come close to meeting the hype that many of my colleagues expected. Instead, I thought he would struggle to get his basic domestic legislative program through, and that in foreign policy he would largely embrace the basic tenets of Bush’s War on Terror. Don’t take my word for this – read my previous posts. Based on these expectations, I hesitate to call his accomplishments “middling” – I actually think he’s done as well as can be expected and in some areas, he beat those expectations. This is not to say he could not have done better. But he also could have done a lot worse.

    But you are really raising a broader question, I think, which is when evaluating a presidency, how much influence do we attribute to the president, and how much to the circumstances he inherits? As you might expect, scholars have destroyed entire forests trying to answer this question, and I’m certainly not going to be able to even begin addressing the topic in a comments section. But maybe I can try to get at it in a longer post. I’ll give it a shot.

    thanks for the intriguing question.

  5. As will be evident, I am new as a commenter. I have yet to hear anyone talk about the impact that the monthly social security payments have had in preventing a second great depression. It would appear to me that if we did not have social security and medicare all would have been lost long ago.

  6. Papa – You are correct that Social Security has been a remarkably effective anti-poverty program for the elderly. However, I’m not quite sure where you are going with this comment. Do you have a broader point in mind?

  7. The point is that the billions of dollars going out to the seniors each month keep the country from a much more severe recession, and perhaps even a depression, that would have made the 1930’s look like a walk in the park.

  8. Again, however, what is your larger point? Are you arguing that because of its importance in keeping seniors above the poverty level, and the impending revenue shortfall, social security needs to be reformed in order to remain solvent? Or are you afraid that reform efforts will involve ending social security?

  9. My only point is that social security saved the US from a much greater crisis. If you read the trustee report you know that there is no funding problem with social security as long as we leave it alone and get the people back to work. This also solves the debt problem. The answer is jobs.

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