Pres. Obama meets with his White House senior staff, 2009 (White House photo) Pres. Obama meets with his White House senior staff, 2009 (White House photo)

What should the president know, and when should he know it?

That variant of the classic Watergate query seems newly relevant, given repeated claims by the White House that the president was not aware of various policies or problems that have come back to haunt the administration — including most recently the NSA’s monitoring of European leaders’ cell phones or the state of the Affordable Care Act’s web portal. (See herehere, and here for recent critiques.)

This is a political issue, to be sure — there is a fine line between plausible deniability, and making denials of incompetence implausible. But at heart it is a matter of organization. After all, in the presidency, as Richard Neustadt argued, Presidential Power itself rests on what a president can get “into his mind. His first essential need is for information.” And information—at least in the modern presidency—is a function of staffing. What sort of staff organization gives the president the information he needs, when he needs it?

The job of the White House staff is to balance presidential ignorance against presidential overload. It is important to reduce the sea of information at the bottom of any hierarchical pyramid to a puddle at the top. But different organizational charts will bring different kinds of problems and alternatives to the president’s attention. Some issues will never make it to the president. Others will, but with certain options weeded out, as each level of staff review simplifies what passes upwards. The choices made along the way will matter for the choices the president in turn can make. (This is one reason Dick Cheney was such a savvy bureaucratic operator: at an early stage he shaped the choices facing the president, which helped his lobbying on the decision over those choices or even made it unnecessary.)

It simplifies the case, but not too violently, to say that scholars of the presidency have identified four basic categories of advising structures. One is formal and strictly hierarchical, flowing through a chief of staff and clearly defined staff assignments — think Eisenhower.  Another has an array of staffers revolving in a collegial way around the president, each at the end of a “spoke of the wheel” whose hub is the Oval Office – this was Kennedy’s usual model. Some scholars argue for “multiple advocacy,” where an “honest broker” gathers all sides of an issue together in a fair and organized manner for presidential decision (one key problem: there are not many truly honest brokers in Washington!) And finally there is what is sometimes called “competitive ad-hocracy” – where advisers do not have fixed substantive jurisdictions and in fact may have duplicative assignments. The idea is that they compete to get the president the best information. Franklin Roosevelt used this model; and in function if not in form, Ronald Reagan’s first term “troika” of Jim Baker, Ed Meese, and Michael Deaver served this purpose.

Each of these organizational templates has advantages, but also drawbacks. For instance, the formalistic model requires a hierarchical division of labor where staff are granted a more-or-less monopoly franchise over a given substantive area and follow a clear chain of command. Such a system emphasizes systematic, well “staffed-out,” analysis. A wide range of issues can be tracked and advisory accountability is clear. On the other hand, such a system can insulate the president from much of the disputation over policy decisions. Because information moves from the bottom-up, the issues that arise are not necessarily defined by the president, nor can he guarantee he is receiving all relevant advice. Staff members, given unique authority over their subject matter, may not share information about their bailiwick or serve as advocates rather than analysts.

Back in 2008, candidate Obama said his advising would track the competitive model – specifically, the “team of rivals” touted in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book of that name. The history of the Lincoln administration (overstated in any case) mattered less to the Obama team than did the metaphor. The phrase served as shorthand for a model of open and inclusive advising and governance, expanding the information available to the president by bringing together multiple views potentially hostile to each other (thus “rivals” in one sense) and to the president’s own views (through bringing in his own political opponents, thus “rivals” in a second sense).

And in fact the presidency literature tends to like the competitive model (see my chapter in this volume for a summary, or an earlier piece here.) It has some real advantages, as Matthew Dickinson traces at book length in his study of FDR’s advising system.  Such a model forces a wealth of information to the president and ensures that he maintains final control over decisions. He knows what he needs to, not just what he wants to.

However, that control costs him his time and managerial effort, and does not always make for quick decision-making. The higher up the hierarchy the competition is installed, the harder it is to coordinate the various streams: this places yet more burden on those at the top, normally the president himself. Nor do staff themselves tend to like competitive models; implementing them runs the risk of building a backbiting culture in the White House.

The upshot is that few presidents have used a competitive model for any length of time; and in the end, neither did Obama. Rivals from Hillary Clinton to Joe Biden entered the administration, true. And the president personally made early demands for more and better information on topics from Afghanistan to the financial bailouts. But that he had to do so suggests the structure did not do it for him — perhaps not surprisingly given the institutional stickiness of what has become the hierarchical “standard model” of presidential staffing identified by political scientists Karen Hult and Charles Walcott. The inherited org chart is hard to resist.

Certainly over time the president has relied (as most do) on a smaller circle of trusted advisers. Insiders were promoted; outside voices became more muted. In the national security area, by mid-2011 observers suggested the outcome was not a team of rivals but a “corps of consensus.”  Peter Baker reported as early as 2010 that Obama was frustrated with advisory “friction” — an aide said that the president was “a little frustrated with the internal dysfunction. He doesn’t like confrontation.”  Yet managing confrontation is at the heart of getting the most out of one’s rivalrous team of rivals.

The not-so-subtle contrast back in 2008, given the context of the campaign, was to the perception of a “Bush bubble,” an echo chamber shut off from open debate. However, as Dana Milbank put it last week, it seems that President Obama has himself become “bubble-wrapped.” As his term continues, the president might do well to recall one of Napoleon’s maxims: that a leader has the right to be beaten—but never to be surprised.