January 8, 2013

Sometimes, the world of journalism just gives us a perfect parallel: the National Journal today features two articles which do just that. 

President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) played golf at Andrews Air Force Base in June, 2011.(Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) played golf at Andrews Air Force Base in June, 2011. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

First, we get Ron Fournier’s piece suggesting that for Barack Obama to succeed, he has to get better at mastering interpersonal relationships with members of Congress — Obama’s problem is that he’s too “aloof.” As Jamelle Bouie points out, this is mostly nonsense. Sure, presidential personality can matter, but there’s no single template for best negotiating style, and at any rate partisan and ideological context matter a lot more than style. I’d add that Fournier’s examples don’t really work, anyway. Ronald Reagan? He was highly effective in Congress for about one year, but for the bulk of his presidency he regularly got rolled by Democrats, and even Republicans, on the Hill — forced into tax increases by moderate Republicans in 1982, finding himself severely constrained in overseas adventures, and generally having to give up entirely on plans to cut government and further increase military spending.

But on the other hand, there’s a nice piece by Matthew Cooper about what Obama should look for in his next chief of staff. And indeed: the record is pretty clear that presidents who make mistakes with these selections can wind up in very bad shape. And Cooper’s list of qualifications is a pretty good one. In particular, White House (or other Executive Office of the president) experience has been a pretty good predictor for effectiveness, much more so, as he points out, than having a prior close relationship with the president. 

The truth is that while major cabinet selections are important, the White House chief of staff is more important. Here’s where Ronald Reagan really is a very useful example: His very effective White House under James Baker during his first term rapidly turned into a scandal-plagued disaster when Donald Regan took over, and then recovered well when Howard Baker was brought in.

Selection of the White House chief of staff has generally been one of the most undercovered stories in Washington, while the effect of presidential personality on policy outcomes is one of the most overcovered stories. Good for Cooper for shining a bit of light on the question.