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How the President Uses His Support Team in Washington, D.C.

In addition to the Cabinet and the thousands of political appointments throughout the government in Washington, D.C., the president relies heavily on the White House staff: his inside team of personal aides, who do not require Senate confirmation. The number of such aides is not specified by law but is limited by the size of the White House and a political sensitivity to the size of the White House budget.

The principal manager of the White House staff is the president’s Chief of Staff. This person oversees the various operations within the White House, including congressional relations, public communications, access to the president, vetting of candidates for political appointments, policy advice, and political strategies. The position is enormously powerful, and presidents routinely assert that the Chief of Staff is subject to executive privilege (meaning not subject to congressional oversight).

In any hierarchical organization, the person who controls the paper flow to the executive also is very powerful. In the White House, the paper flow is managed by the Staff Secretary. The title sounds rather innocuous, but don’t be fooled; this year’s Staff Secretary can become next year’s Chief of Staff.

The most influential advisors to the President may be difficult to determine by solely examining the EOP flowchart. Personalities and personal ties matter; old friends and colleagues who have stuck by the President through thick and thin may hold more sway than party stalwarts who have served under numerous administrations.

Official titles also have a habit of becoming vaguer; Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama chose to designate their most trusted political confidants as merely senior advisors. Some presidential right-hand men, from John F. Kennedy’s Ted Sorensen to George W. Bush’s Karl Rove, have become famous public figures in their own right.

In an environment where hierarchies may matter little, having the President’s ear is key, and bureaucratic infighting is fierce, it’s not surprising that a less-than-cohesive team may emerge. President Abraham Lincoln’s deft management of the “team of rivals” he assembled into a Cabinet during the Civil War is perhaps more the exception than the rule.

Whenever you hear that an administration official is resigning to spend more time with his family, you can bet that some strategic leaks to the press will soon paint the official as someone who didn’t quite bond with the president or wasn’t a team player. Office politics can be nasty anywhere, and the Executive Office of the President (EOP) certainly isn’t immune to them.

Indeed, closeness to the flame of power often results in getting scalded. Some White House chiefs of staff have learned the hard way. President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Chief of Staff, Sherman Adams, was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had accepted a vicuna coat from a businessman who was being investigated by the federal government.

President Nixon’s Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman, was forced to resign and ultimately convicted of crimes associated with the Watergate scandal. But other chiefs of staff have used that position as a stepping stone to political office. President Ford’s Chief of Staff, Dick Cheney, subsequently became the 46th Vice President. And President Obama’s first Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, became the mayor of Chicago.

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