Tag Archives: chief of staff

Won’t You Come Home, Bill Daley?

It’s official: the Daley show is ending at the West Wing.

In a move that reportedly surprised President Obama, chief of staff Bill Daley told the President last Tuesday that he would be stepping down, effective at the end of the month. His resignation was only announced today (and no, it’s not a coincidence that the announcement was slipped in during the day before the New Hampshire primary) after Obama reportedly failed to talk Daley out of his decision. (Do I believe this?  I do not.) Daley will be replaced by current OMB director Jake Lew.

Daley had been slated to leave his position after the 2012 election, and no reason was given, other than Daley’s desire to spend more time with his family, for the accelerated departure.  However, as I’ve discussed in previous posts, Daley’s tight management style had rubbed some of Obama’s junior White House aides the wrong way, and he was not very popular with the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill either.  Some press reports also indicated he clashed with members of Obama’s campaign team. More generally, as I argued here, highly visible chief of staffs who combined the traditional administrative coordinator’s role with control over the policy development and political outreach functions tend to have rather short tenures in the White House.  All told Daley will have served about a year as Obama’s chief of staff – far shorter than  predecessors’ average of roughly 2 ½  year in this high profile job. Here’s the list of the previous Chief of Staff’s dating back to Eisenhower’s administration.

Chief Years President
Sherman Adams 1953-1958 Eisenhower
Wilton Persons 1958-1961 Eisenhower
H. R. Haldeman 1969-1973 Nixon
Alexander Haig 1973-1974 Nixon
Donald Rumsfeld 1974-1975 Ford
Dick Cheney 1975-1977 Ford
Hamilton Jordan 1979-1980 Carter
Jack Watson 1980-1981 Carter
James Baker 1981-1985 Reagan
Donald Regan 1985-1987 Reagan
Howard Baker 1987-1988 Reagan
Kenneth Duberstein 1988-1989 Reagan
John H. Sununu 1989-1991 Bush I
Samuel K. Skinner 1991-1992 Bush I
James Baker 1992-1993 Bush I
Mack McLarty 1993-1994 Clinton
Leon Panetta 1994-1997 Clinton
Erskine Bowles 1997-1998 Clinton
John Podesta 1998-2001 Clinton
Andrew Card 2001-2006 Bush II
Joshua Bolten 2006-2009 Bush II
Rahm Emanuel 2009-2010 Obama
Pete Rouse (Interim) 2010-2011 Obama
William M. Daley 2011-2012 Obama
Jacob Lew 2012-present Obama

As you can see, no president has gone through as many chiefs of staff in their first term as Obama has to date.

The more immediate cause for Daley’s resignation, however, may have been the decision, reported in early November, to strip Daley of some of his internal management duties.  White House veterans know that the source of the chief of staff’s power is his control over the key daily administrative processes: the paper flow, scheduling, and personnel decisions.  Those duties had been delegated to Pete Rouse, who had served as interim chief of staff in the period between Rahm Emanuel’s departure and Daley’s appointment last January. Without control of those processes, and lacking strong connections to Congress, Daley’s influence was likely already on the wane.  Although no statement was made regarding whether Lew will regain control of these administrative processes, he does have stronger ties to Capitol Hill due in part to his experience as a senior policy adviser to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill. Lew also served in the State Department during Clinton’s presidency.

Coming on the heels of NY Times reporter Jodi Kantor’s book The Obamas that purportedly documents discord within the Obama White House, (see also here), Daley’s resignation will undoubtedly add more fuel to the speculative fire.  In fact, however, Daley’s resignation fits in with a long-term historical trend that sees much higher White House staff turnover rates in the post-1968 modern presidential selection process than in previous decades. The basic reason for the increase in turnover, as I’ve argued before, is that the skills needed to govern are not always the same ones that are required for campaigning in the modern era.  As presidents gear up for reelection, then, there tends to be significant staff turnover as aides are either replaced or moved out to join the campaign staff.  So far, the turnover in the Obama administration has closely followed this historical pattern.  Indeed, Daley is slated to become one of the co-chairs of Obama’s reelection campaign, although it is unclear just how much influence he will have in this position.

Media pundits tend to see every change in White House personnel as a reflection of personality differences, policy disagreements and clashing egos. In fact, the causes usually are rooted in more fundamental rhythms that affect all modern White House staffs. Among these, perhaps none is more important than the organizational transition from governing to campaigning – exactly the transition the Obama White House has been undergoing in recent months.  Rather than discord, then, Daley’s resignation seems entirely consistent with previous historical patterns.

It remains to be seen, however, if Obama will be singing a different tune after the November elections:

You remember that rainy evenin’
I threw you out….with nothin’ but a fine tooth comb
Ya, I know I’m to blame, now… ain’t it a shame
Bill Daley, won’t you please come home



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.


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.