The chief of staff position was originally created by President Dwight Eisenhower, whose military background meant that he was experienced in managing large organizations. But the idea did not immediately take. Neither John F. Kennedy nor Lyndon Johnson had a chief of staff. Richard Nixon re-established the position but with an infamous result: The chief of staff was H.R. Haldeman, whose involvement in the Watergate scandal would put him in prison.
After Nixon resigned, President Gerald Ford decided that he could not afford to look too much like Nixon and did something similar to what Trump has proposed. Ford initially ran his White House as “the knights of the round table,” with nine people reporting directly to him. But after several months, Ford was overwhelmed with demands on his time and asked Donald Rumsfeld to come in as chief of staff and impose discipline in the White House.
Similarly, President Jimmy Carter decided that he did not want to look like Nixon, and so he chose to be his own chief of staff. It didn’t work for him, either, and Carter eventually appointed Hamilton Jordan to the position.
Ford and Carter’s initial system has been called the “spokes-of-the-wheel” approach, with a number of White House staffers reporting directly to the president. Why did it fail? The primary reason was the sheer size of the White House. During the 1970s, the White House increased from about 250 to more than 575 staffers, overwhelming the president’s ability to monitor and control them. The lesson learned by these presidents is that someone short of the president must be in charge of the White House.
Since then, the closest a president has come to a less hierarchical system was Ronald Reagan’s “troika,” with Michael Deaver in charge of staging presidential appearances, Edwin Meese as a top policy adviser, and James A. Baker as chief of staff. But Baker was clearly in charge of running the White House; he hired the White House staff and controlled the policy development process.
Bill Clinton learned the value of a figure like Baker. Clinton initially appointed boyhood friend Mack McLarty as chief of staff. But McLarty lacked the authority to fully control the White House staff, and Clinton had to bring in Leon Panetta to impose discipline.
The White House now has more than 15 sub-units filled with more than 400 very ambitious people who will compete for the president’s time to promote their priorities. Cabinet secretaries will do the same. Someone must organize demands on the president’s time, moderate staff battles and ensure that the right advice gets to the president.
Empowering a chief of staff does not mean that the president will or should have only one source of information or advice. In fact, it’s just the opposite.
The chief of staff should ensure that the president is exposed to opposing voices on all important policy issues, and particularly to those at odds with the apparent consensus. If important people in the administration feel shut out, they will create back doors to the president. The result will be policy incoherence.
Furthermore, empowering a chief of staff does not mean that the president will or should ignore outside advice. Presidents should be able to consult with whomever they choose, including an outside “kitchen cabinet.”
But advice must be mediated by the White House staff so that any serious proposal can be “staffed out” to examine its full implications. If not, the president may accept what seems like a good idea without being aware of its full ramifications. It’s not that staffers know better than the president. It’s that the president needs to be aware of opposing views and potential pitfalls before making a decision.
Of course, an orderly policy process does not guarantee good policymaking. As Eisenhower observed, “Organization cannot make a genius out of an incompetent.” But he also said, “On the other hand, disorganization can scarcely fail to result in inefficiency and can easily lead to disaster.”
If Trump is to have an effective White House, he should heed these lessons from his most recent predecessors.
James P. Pfiffner is University Professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.