Organizing the White House

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					Organizing the White House: Alternatives to the Standard Model?

Charles E. Walcott Professor of Political Science Karen M. Hult Professor of Political Science Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University Blacksburg, VA 24061-0130

Paper prepared for presentation at the annual meeting of the Southern Political Science Association, New Orleans, January 8-11, 2004.

Over the past seven presidencies, a once-lively debate over the proper size and organization of the president’s White House staff seemingly has been settled. Where once Democrats and Republicans hewed to distinct views, now there appears to be a consensus, subscribed to by leaders of both parties and backed by scholarly research and advocacy (see, e.g., Kumar & Sullivan, 2003). We have come to refer to this consensus as the “Standard Model” of White House staffing, indicating both its widespread acceptance and its ascension to normative status. The Standard Model, prefigured by Dwight Eisenhower and first fully realized under Richard Nixon, has proven itself robust over a series of presidencies, including at least two (Ford and Carter) in which the president initially sought to reject it (see Hult & Walcott, 2004). At the same time, various kinds of dissatisfaction with the performance of the White House staff have been a hallmark of recent presidencies. From Iran-Contra under Reagan through John Sununu’s firing by the elder Bush and Clinton’s early “madhouse” to the controversy surrounding the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, presidential staff performance hardly has been beyond reproach. Given that history, it seems reasonable to revisit the basic features of the Standard Model and to ask whether there are plausible alternatives that future presidents might wish to consider. Here, we will begin with an account of the emergence of the Standard Model out of the partisan debate over staffing that lasted at least until the late 1970s. We will lay out the basic criteria that a White House staffing system must meet, and show how the Standard Model addresses them. After that, we will turn to the search for alternatives. We will begin by asking whether the size and complexity of the contemporary White House might be usefully reduced, mainly by “contracting out” some of the units and tasks


that have come to be taken for granted. Simply shrinking the organization might have important ramifications for its operation. Then, we will take a somewhat more theoretical look at the structuring and operation of the White House, focusing less on its composition than on the principles upon which it is run. In our search for a possible rationale for a somewhat less hierarchical and more flexible organization, we will reintroduce some of the claims made long ago on behalf of the White Houses of, for example, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. I. The Standard Model The White House is necessarily a hierarchy. No one is the president’s equal. Yet that relationship, although all-important, is insufficient for structuring a staff. In the earliest days of plural professional White House staffers, a degree of additional staff structuring appeared, with both Hoover and Roosevelt designating specific staff members as press secretaries, “political” aides, and speechwriters (e.g., Walcott & Hult, 1995). Nevertheless, both FDR and Truman employed key staffers such as Harry Hopkins and Clark Clifford in a variety of capacities while for the most part resisting the imposition of firm job definitions and formal reporting rules.1 More importantly, each president managed the staff in a basically collegial manner, involving himself in the morning staff meetings that set the tone and direction of White House activities.2 Although Roosevelt’s White House was never large, Truman’s topped 200, and his approach to management, more than FDR’s, became the model for his Democratic successors.


Nonetheless, Truman, for example, tried a rough separation of policy and implementation and used highly specialized advisors on such matters as foreign affairs. 2 The “competitive” FDR approach that Richard Tanner Johnson (1974) and others have described did not generally extend to the WHO per se.


Thus, when Dwight Eisenhower introduced more hierarchy and procedures -with a chief of staff, a staff secretariat, and clearer job definitions for even the top staff, Democrats looked on with dismay (e.g., Neustadt, 1961). This “formalistic” approach (Johnson, 1974) was derided as inflexible, overly complex, and smacking too much of a military, not a political, organization. Initially, Ike had few defenders among presidency scholars, most of whom, like Neustadt, took Roosevelt as the standard. Later scholarly treatments of Eisenhower’s system would paint a far more positive portrait (e.g., Greenstein, 1982; Henderson, 1988; Burke, Greenstein, et al., 1989; Walcott & Hult, 1994) but the battle lines had been drawn. In the political science literature and in Congress,3 Democrats were uniformly critical of the Eisenhower model. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, advised by such Truman veterans as Neustadt and Clifford, opted for versions of the Truman system, with somewhat more flexibility of assignments than in the Eisenhower White House and, perhaps most importantly, no chief of staff.4 Instead, the president was at the center of White House management, with a half-dozen or more coequal staffers reporting directly to him. The Democrats’ approach came to be referred to as the “spokes-of-the wheel.” This tendency to transmit organizational philosophy along party lines through White House veterans and their academic apologists is a phenomenon we have dubbed “partisan learning” (Walcott & Hult, 1995). It has never been wholly the case that the presidency lacks institutional memory. Rather, that memory until fairly recently has been selective,


For example, Senator Henry M. Jackson’s subcommittee on the national security policy machinery held hearings on the Eisenhower administration’s national security decision procedures; its report was sharply critical of the “overformalization” of the process. See Jackson (1965) and Henderson (1988, 123-27). 4 At the same time, JFK and LBJ had powerful national security assistants (NSAs), which Ike had deliberately avoided.


conditioned by experience, advisory networks, and partisan criticisms arising out of political competition, especially campaigns. The Kennedy and Johnson White Houses drew mixed reviews, and LBJ in particular came to believe that his required some sort of organizational fix. As a creature of Congress, however, he was not as attuned to structural or managerial issues, and evidently did not focus on them long enough to accomplish significant change (Walcott & Hult, 1995, ch. 11). Moreover, by this time, a fair amount of institutionalization had already taken place, regardless of the Democratic commitment to flexibility and collegiality at the top of the staff. For instance, a congressional relations unit, established under Eisenhower, had become a standard White House feature, as had a White House personnel office, which dated to Truman. The White House counsel’s office, despite functioning differently under the two parties, was always in evidence. Likewise, the press office, which traced to Hoover, had become a routine element of the White House. The national security assistant, a job basically conceived by Eisenhower, had been strengthened under JFK and LBJ. To these, Johnson added a specialized domestic policy staff and a staff of full-time speechwriters. Formal structuring, with specialization and internal hierarchy, had become a fact of White House life. Still, the Democrats eschewed a chief of staff and much of the apparatus of staff management that Ike had introduced. Nixon and the Emergence of the Standard Model When Richard Nixon assumed the presidency, he had every reason to look to his own partisan background, which of course included service in the Eisenhower White House as vice president. Eisenhower veterans like Bryce Harlow served as conduits for partisan wisdom, but it was Nixon himself, in concert with chief of staff-designate


H.R.Haldeman, who took the basic GOP model and elaborated it into the first full-blown example of what would become the Standard Model. Nixon surrounded Haldeman with relatively elaborate panoply of aides: a cabinet secretary, an appointments secretary (both jobs had become fixtures in the White House beginning with Eisenhower), a personal aide (responsible for “the body”), and several more junior assistants. More important, the new chief of staff instituted a sophisticated management apparatus. It included a “staffing” system for circulating policy and political ideas and obtaining comment from relevant administration members, as well as a “tickler” mechanism for following up on presidential directives and demanding that they be acted upon (Hult & Walcott, 2004, ch. 2). Nixon continued and in some cases elaborated the already-developed features of the White House, such as the press office and the congressional liaison staff. Intensely concerned with public and media relations, and possessing a staff with abundant expertise in these areas, he added a communications office at the outset. This was designed to deal with the non-Washington media that were outside the purview of the press secretary. Also in the area of outreach, Nixon introduced the first public liaison staff, formalizing the growing presidential practice of reaching out to supportive organized interests. In a political climate increasingly driven by the media and money, these innovations were practical responses to significant changes in the environment of the presidency. It is more than likely that, had Nixon not initiated such structures in the White House, a successor would have. Nixon scarcely neglected structuring for policy, however. He also created the Domestic Council, an elaboration of LBJ’s domestic policy staff idea, designed to


resemble structurally the National Security Council and staff. He experimented with similar innovations in the economic policy sphere. Here, it seems that structural elaboration was less a product of environmental demand than of Nixon’s own concern with gaining maximum leverage over policy from the White House. The choice of particular structures apparently reflected the perceived success of the first “cabinet council plus staff,” the NSC (Hult & Walcott, 2004, ch. 7).5 One result of Nixon’s initiative was an increase in staff size from around 350 to 400 under Johnson to as many as 560 during the final two years of Nixon’s first term, as campaign functionaries (e.g., an advance staff) were added to the White House. In the aftermath of the election, though, reducing the size of the staff became a priority.6 The key to understanding the Nixon White House, however, and to the definition of the Standard Model, is less the size of the staff or the exact design of its component offices. Instead, the central features relate to process. The “staffing” system, operated by a staff secretary who reported to the chief of staff, was, in effect, a method of surrogate discussion (cf. Hult & Tenpas, 2003). Faced with a president who did not much like face-to-face discussion, Haldeman devised a way of putting questions of policy or political strategy – ranging from the largest matters to such minutiae as who should be invited to the White House – into memo form. These memos were systematically circulated among all members of the administration (and occasionally beyond) whose


In this design, the councils included top executive branch officials and supported by a presidential advisor in the WHO (e.g., the assistant to the president for domestic policy) who directed a significant staff lodged elsewhere in the Executive Office of the President. 6 See, e.g., Hart, 1995a, b. Many of the apparently large increases in staff size in Nixon’s first term reflected the administration’s decision “to eliminate reliance on detailees, to submit an ‘honest budget,’ and to ask Congress to pay for the actual size of the staff” (Walcott & Hult, 1999, 640). Between 1970 and 1971, for instance, the full-time White House and special projects staffs rose from 345 to 555; during the same period, however, the number of detailees decreased from 287 to 17, producing an aggregate decrease in the size of the staff.


inputs were valued, by virtue of either the relevance of their jobs or respect for their judgment. These memos presented options, and invited each solicited individual to both note a preference and provide an explanation. Such paper passed through Haldeman’s office (and, on important matters, through Haldeman himself) to the president. Haldeman’s control of the staffing system, along with his supervision of the scheduling of the president’s time, clearly was a source of considerable power. Most Nixon insiders, it should be noted, viewed Haldeman as an “honest broker,” with few if any policy axes to grind (Hult & Walcott, 2004, ch. 2). Haldeman’s apparatus had an implementation element as well. Within the White House, Haldeman and his staff insisted upon strict discipline and prompt carrying out of assigned tasks. “Ticklers” reminded Haldeman’s staff of assignments’ due dates, and tardy responses typically were met with stern warnings and instructions. Often cited as evidence of the malevolent influence of hierarchy and of Haldeman’s power, the tickler mechanism was (and is) actually a business management staple. Haldeman’s aggressive use of it was unusual, however, and reports of a climate of anxiety on the White House staff were credible (Hult & Walcott, 2004, ch. 2). Predictably, the Nixon White House drew criticism from Democrats, much of it reminiscent of that directed at Eisenhower. In addition to complaints about excessive hierarchy and the evident isolation of the president from the give-and-take of ideas, Nixon and his aides were accused of being obsessed with secrecy and the prevention of leaks. Wiretapping initiated by Henry Kissinger, the “Plumbers” operation lodged in John Ehrlichman’s office, and the Watergate burglary (conceived and executed at the campaign committee, but linked to the White House through Haldeman’s office)


supported the charges.

The questions raised in the aftermath of the Watergate

revelations focused in part on whether the staff structuring of the Nixon White House was culpable. Did not the combination of a large, hierarchical staff and Haldeman’s aggressive management style somehow produce or encourage a willingness to engage in lawbreaking? Some, notably Thomas Cronin (1980), argued that it did. As plausible as the linkage between this sort of criticism of the staff and the obviously disastrous outcome might have been, it does not hold up well upon later inspection. In the case of Watergate, after all, most of the “action” was at the Committee to Re-elect the President (CRP, or as the press liked to call it, CREEP), not the White House. More importantly, the misdeeds that emanated from the Nixon White House were conspiracies: they involved few people and extreme secrecy. The logic of the Nixon staffing system, in contrast, rested on the sharing of information and opinion. It seems more reasonable to argue, as Haldeman himself did, that Watergate and related abuses were not products of the system, but rather of deliberate avoidance of the system. Ultimately, the blame must rest upon Nixon personally, along with a few aides, not upon the organizational arrangements or the size of the White House staff. The Search for Alternatives Nevertheless, Nixon’s immediate successors evidently accepted the verdict that the staffing system was at least partially to blame for the president’s downfall. Both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter were at pains to appear as unlike Nixon as possible, and that included, in theory at least, the way they organized and ran their White Houses. Ford, whom Nixon had chosen as vice president, bore a particular burden. In contrast with Nixon’s penchant for secrecy, Ford immediately declared his to be an “open”


administration, formally eschewing a chief of staff and opting instead for a spokes-of-the wheel arrangement designed to ensure that the president did not become isolated or his gatekeeper(s) too powerful. This was congenial for the former House leader, who unlike his predecessor, preferred dealing with issues through face-to-face meetings. But President Ford entered an administration in midstream, with a staff in place and well-established routines for conducting the regular business of the White House. Although he removed several of Nixon’s top aides, including Chief of Staff Al Haig and anyone tainted by Watergate, the new president soon found that he needed to rely upon the second-level organizational infrastructure that carried over from Nixon. This reliance was implied in his choice of Donald Rumsfeld, a Ford intimate but also a Nixon veteran, as staff coordinator. Steeped in the processes of the Nixon White House, Rumsfeld and his protégé and eventual successor Richard Cheney in effect saw to it that the routines worked for Ford much as they had for Nixon. Despite fierce protests by long-time Ford aides, notably counselor Robert Hartmann (1980), the Nixon staff system survived the transition remarkably intact. Only the communications office, besmirched under Nixon by its involvement in Watergate-related events, was greatly reduced in size and stature. Constrained by his circumstances, Ford not only was unable to free himself from the Standard Model, but also finally reconciled himself to it. Elected in large part because he was a Washington “outsider,” Jimmy Carter was not constrained by his predecessor’s practices. Indeed, a management study made for him during the transition recommended substantial changes in the structuring of the White House. Carter heeded much of this advice. His initial design for the White House staff was a clear attempt to move back to the traditional Democratic model. There would


be no chief of staff, but rather numerous spokes, including cabinet members, surrounding the presidential hub; routine management was entrusted to a committee of senior staff. Yet, below the top levels, virtually all of Nixon’s (and Ford’s) structures survived, including the public liaison office. Only communications was not in evidence, reduced to being a subsidiary of the press office. Although Carter abandoned cabinet councils in structuring consideration of domestic and economic policy, he did not disband the accompanying policy staffs. Thus, rather than returning to the seemingly “lessstructured” White Houses of Truman or even Kennedy, Carter essentially overlaid a “collegial” (Johnson, 1974) apparatus of senior staff on top of a version of the Standard Model. Indeed, so clearly defined were the duties of the various White House units that the retrospective criticism of many Carter staffers has been that these structures were overly compartmentalized and lacked sufficient coordination and integration (Hult & Walcott, 2004). Carter’s plan for the White House had another element, also shared with Ford: shrinking the staff. Ford, reacting to the criticism of Nixon’s huge staff, had downsized it to about 450 (which, in fact, is roughly what Nixon had planned to do after the 1972 election). Carter was more ambitious, determining that the staff should be no larger than 351 (Hart, 1995b, 199).7 No one seems quite sure where that number came from, but it was adhered to religiously, and it certainly was consistent with the idea of getting back to the leaner, more flexible White House organization long admired by Democrats. The resulting cuts were partly deceptive (e.g., shifting many White House Office careerists to a new Office of Administration in the Executive Office of the President [EOP], using


At least half of this number was more permanent, “non-political” staff. See, e.g., Patterson, 2000, especially ch. 22; Walcott & Hult, 1999.


detailees on short details), but much of the cutting was real and meaningful (Dickinson, 1997; Hart, 1995a; Walcott & Hult, 1999). Unfortunately, the main impact, apart from shrinking the White House budget a bit, was to weaken the capacity of important elements of the White House Office (WHO), such as the speechwriting staff, to support the president (Hult & Walcott, 2001; Walcott & Hult, 1999, 652-53). Meanwhile, none of these efforts produced a staff small enough to be effectively managed without a chief of staff. About two and a half years into his presidency, Jimmy Carter threw in the towel as far as overall White House organization was concerned. In the last of three significant reorganizations, he appointed top aide Hamilton Jordan as chief of staff. Acknowledging that he was no manager, Jordan brought in corporate executive Alonzo McDonald as his deputy. By most accounts, the Carter White House ran more efficiently during its final eighteen months under Jordan and his successor, Jack Watson. More importantly for our purposes here, Carter’s abandonment of the “spokes” strategy and capitulation to more hierarchical structuring provides strong evidence that the Standard Model had finally prevailed across party lines. The Standard Model as Norm Unsurprisingly, Carter’s Republican successors maintained the same basic organizational model in their White Houses. In his first term, Ronald Reagan experimented with a widely touted “troika” arrangement, where three top advisors – James Baker III, Edwin Meese, and Michael Deaver – had roughly coequal status. To some, this seemed to be a move away from the Standard Model (e.g., Campbell, 1986, 93ff). Nonetheless, Baker was clearly the chief of staff. The fact that Meese, the


domestic policy czar, had formally equal status was really not novel. Counselors to the president (Meese’s title) had enjoyed similar status dating back to Bryce Harlow at the outset of the Nixon administration. Since Ford likewise had counselors (Hartmann and John Marsh), one could as easily claim that this arrangement had come to be an expected part of the Standard Model – the Republican version, at least. At any rate, Reagan’s second term saw a less complex (and far less successful) arrangement, with a chief of staff (initially Donald Regan) clearly at the apex of the staff hierarchy. George H.W. Bush followed suit with John Sununu and his successors, including James Baker. Carter’s obsession with staff size departed the White House with him. Reagan and H. W. Bush allowed the official (budgeted) size of the staff to float back up to around 400-450, roughly where it was when Ford left office. Complaints about inadequate staffing of various offices were no longer heard. The Clinton Experience The Standard Model got another acid test with the arrival of the next Democratic president, Bill Clinton. Formally, Clinton accepted the model, which by now had even received lukewarm endorsement from, for example, Richard Neustadt (1990). However, Clinton deliberately installed a “weak” chief of staff, his old friend Mack McLarty, who did not have a mandate to crack the whip in the manner of most of his predecessors (Walcott, et al., 2003). Instead, Clinton, like Carter, hoped to function as the hub of the staff wheel, at least where policy decisions were concerned. The resulting disorganization was famously labeled a “madhouse” in Jeffrey Birnbaum’s (1996) scathing account. Finally understanding that his approach was not working – and was costing him heavily in terms of the esteem of the Washington community – Clinton


brought in Leon Panetta, whose political career traced back to service in the first Nixon administration, to shape up the staff. Panetta largely succeeded (Walcott, et al., 2003). Although the perception of the “madhouse” took far longer to fade, if indeed it ever did, the reality under Panetta and his successors was a reasonably smoothly functioning version of the Standard Model. Clinton also reproduced a version of Carter’s mistake regarding the size of the White House staff. Less a policy commitment than an ill-advised campaign promise, Clinton’s determination to shrink the staff resulted mainly in the dismissal of nonpolitical staff such as White House telephone operators and, more controversially, aides in the White House Travel Office. This provoked widespread criticism and reinforced the view of critics that the Clintons were pathologically prone to politicization. Ultimately, the size of the Clinton White House came to resemble its predecessors. Apparently, in the absence of large new units, a kind of equilibrium had been reached. The Establishment Response Although the Clinton White House recovered, many in Washington still recalled its early problems with horror. This led to a major response from the presidencywatching element of the Washington, D.C. think-tank/academic complex. Several organizations, including the Center for the Study of the Presidency, the Heritage Foundation, the Baker Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Brookings Institution, launched projects designed to facilitate a smoother and more successful presidential transition in 2000-01. Among the elements of the advice that flowed from these was one constant: hew to the Standard Model.


Perhaps the most ambitious effort was the White House 2001 Project,8 funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and run under the aegis of both AEI and Brookings. Scholars working with the Project produced a series of essays intended to guide the transition process, looking to, for example, the Reagan administration as a successful model and the Clinton experience as an object lesson on how not to launch a new presidency (e.g., J. Burke, 2003). Other teams of scholars, working from roughly 80 interviews with former top White House officials, generated seven essays discussing, in both descriptive detail and normative exhortation, seven “key” offices within the (Standard Model) White House.9 The Project’s work, summarized in White House World (Kumar & Sullivan, 2003), presents the most detailed portrait to date of the inner workings of the contemporary White House. The message to the incoming president (whoever that would be) was clear: organize the White House in the way that has, by virtual consensus, been found to be the most successful, and do not dally with Carterian or Clintonian heresies. Of course, there was little need to tell any of this to George W. Bush, whose top appointees and advisors included Rumsfeld and Cheney, and whose chief of staff would be Andrew Card, a deputy chief of staff in the first Bush administration.10 The lesson probably would have proven redundant to Al Gore as well, since he had witnessed the early disarray under Clinton and surely would have been loathe to repeat it. The real significance of the emergence of such a strong consensus on White House organization will most likely be felt in subsequent administrations that, more like Carter’s or

The project has since been re-named the White House Transition Project (WHTP). For a full description of its activities and resources, see, e.g., Kumar & Sullivan (2003) and the WHTP web site <>. 9 Prominent among them was the office of the chief of staff – the most obvious defining characteristic of the Standard Model. The other units profiled were the offices of White House counsel, communications, personnel, the press secretary, management and administration, and staff secretary. 10 George W. Bush, of course, also had seen the difficulties that a too-dominant chief of staff could produce; indeed, he was the one who ultimately asked for John Sununu’s resignation.


Clinton’s, are organized by presidents and staffs that are relatively new to Washington. This agreement on staff structuring would seem to constitute progress, and it refutes the old saw that the White House has no institutional memory. Not only is the memory very much in evidence; it is now codified. An incoming president who ignores such conventional wisdom will do so at immediate peril to his or her reputation inside the Beltway. II. Thinking beyond the Standard Model Before concluding with satisfaction that the problem of presidential staffing has been solved, however, it seems reasonable, at least for the sake of argument, to continue to interrogate the Standard Model. Certainly, its reputation, the reports of White House insiders, and even the sometimes-grudging testimony of scholars suggest that the model “works.” Exactly what “working” involves, though, is somewhat less clear. Moreover, whether the Standard Model (or some close variant) is the only desirable and feasible approach to organizing the White House given contemporary politics and governance may be questioned. In this section, we sketch some of the elements of an exploration that begins to address such points. Why is the Standard Model Accepted? Perhaps the primary reason for the widespread acceptance of at least the necessity of the Standard Model revolves around the evident need for systematic coordination and supervision in the institutional presidency. In recent decades, the WHO has come to employ close to 450 staffers (plus others in the EOP policy staffs) and to include numerous specialized units; it is at the center of the evident politicization and centralization in the larger executive branch. The presidency also is enmeshed in an


environment of arguably rising complexity, uncertainty, and volatility (but see Neustadt, 2001). In such a context, presidents striving to be effective in pursuing their political and policy objectives are expected to benefit from orderly flows of information that include the perspectives of and debates among relevant actors and that reach the Oval Office in a timely fashion for necessary decisions. Further, once presidential decisions are made, procedures to assign responsibility for and monitor their execution also are needed. Features of the Standard Model increase the likelihood of such coordination. Assuring that decision memos and presidential speech drafts are put through systematic clearance processes operated by a staff secretariat, for example, can help reduce the risk of ad hoc decision-making. Former chiefs of staff agree about the importance of protecting presidents against making “oh, by the way” decisions (e.g., Jack Watson, in Kernell & Popkin, 1986). In broader normative terms, one might well contend that, in the current context of governing, the Standard Model is desirable because its employment may enhance both presidential effectiveness and staff accountability to the president. It seeks to boost presidential effectiveness to the extent that it increases the representativeness and “procedural rationality” of decision-making (cf. Tenpas & Hult, 2003).11 Clearance procedures, for example, attempt to include input from all relevant actors (thus serving as a form of multiple advocacy), while also enforcing deadlines to help assure decisions are made in a timely manner. At the same time, staff accountability is achieved through the overall White House hierarchy, with staffers reporting to the president through a chief of

The representativeness of decision structuring increases the more it “includes officials who reflect the range of relevant policy or political expertise and experience” (Tenpas & Hult, 2003, 71). Procedural rationality rises when “decision makers explore divergent information and perspectives within the constraints of available time and cognitive capacities and are able to reach decision closure” (Hult, 2000, 29).


staff and a staffing system with “ticklers” to ensure participation and to monitor implementation of presidential decisions. Nonetheless, the Standard Model is hardly a counsel of perfection. As with rules and standard operating procedures more generally, the model’s structuring and processes are aimed at increasing the reliability of presidential and White House activities. They also can aid individual presidents in economizing on and better focusing their scarce time and energy as well as cope with large, ambitious, and sometimes fractious numbers of White House aides. Indeed, some of those who support the Standard Model do so out of evident resignation. Matthew Dickinson (2003, 45ff), for instance, contends that moving away from the Standard Model would involve shrinking the size and reducing the differentiation of the White House Office; yet the prevailing political and governing environments evidently make those very features of the staff virtual necessities as presidents seek to cope with increased political uncertainty.12 Organizational inertia and so-called nonpartisan learning in matters of White House staff structuring might well reinforce reliance on the Standard Model (see, e.g., Hult & Walcott, 2004, chs. 1-2). If indeed the Standard Model has become part of the “legitimating creed” of White House staff organization, as Kernell appears to suggest (1986, 224), then it may be especially resistant to change. Are There Alternatives to the Standard Model? One might start an exploration for alternatives by returning to the erstwhile Democratic option, which stressed a smaller staff and less hierarchical, more flexible


Key elements of the environment include “a polarized Congress, numerous narrowly focused and clashing interest groups, an adversarial media, and a wary public” (Dickinson, 2003, 45).


structuring. These features allegedly had several virtues. For instance, the smaller size of the White House helped foster stronger and more certain involvement of presidents in directing senior staffers and in assuring that their actions were consistent with presidential values and objectives, since it allowed the president to know and interact with a higher proportion of the staff and required less mediation through a chief of staff. As Dickinson (2003) notes, a smaller staff may well be a prerequisite to a return to a less hierarchical, president-centered approach to management.13 The Democratic model also promised greater staff capacity to adapt to changing circumstances and policy issues. Reduced hierarchy and smaller staff size was associated as well with somewhat less specialization and its frequent consequences of staff “compartmentalization” and turf politics. Like the Standard Model, the Democratic approach can be viewed as promising heightened effectiveness and accountability. The ability to achieve presidential objectives arguably could be enhanced by more direct presidential guidance, by greater knowledge of and adaptability to external challenges and opportunities, and by reduced difficulties of coordinating across specialties. Meanwhile, greater presidential involvement presumably would help decrease problems of staff accountability. Rather clearly, the contentions about the virtues of the Democratic approach are virtual mirror images of the potential pathologies of the Standard Model. Critics of the model express concern about, inter alia, staff fragmentation, staff advocacy of nonpresidential interests (arguing instead from the perspectives of, e.g., members of Congress, particular constituency groups), amplification of a public expectation gap,


In addition, Presidents Ford, Carter, and Clinton were sensitive to the issue of economy, or perhaps more precisely the appearance of economy, arising from a smaller and thus less expensive staff.


shielding of the president from intense disagreement, and the diffusion of staff accountability to the president.14 In organization theory, it is virtually axiomatic that there is “no one right way” to organize. If we accept that, what other sorts of approaches to staffing the White House might future presidents explore? 1. Reducing Staff Size One avenue might be to return to efforts to downsize the White House staff. Broadly speaking, two strategies of downsizing are possible: across-the-board staff cuts and selective elimination of units.15 Of the two, across-the-board cuts seem by far the less promising. Although this kind of reduction is a popular campaign promise, it has proved dubious in practice. If one can measure, very roughly, the effectiveness of White House units in task performance (and presumably the extent of achievement of presidential goals) by the reports of those who have worked in them, the deep cuts engineered by Carter seriously hurt the capacity of the staff to do its work (e.g., Hart, 1995a; Hult & Walcott, 2001; Walcott & Hult, 1999). Conversely, Ford, sensitive to the objection that he might cripple staff units, had a difficult time cutting, and did not aspire seriously to go below 450 aides. Clinton confronted a similar problem, which he tried to solve by cutting non-political support aides (who constituted the “professional” staff in most of the units) rather than political appointees. Few if any can now be found who think that this was a good idea, either practically or politically (see, e.g., Arnold, et al., 2003; Hult & Tenpas, 2003; Patterson, 2000).

14 15

Such criticisms can be found, for example, in Dickinson (1997, 2003), Hess (2002), and Neustadt (2001). We rule out here the deceptive practice of simply moving the units elsewhere in the Executive Office of the President, producing budgetary savings in the White House Office itself, but shifting offsetting spending elsewhere.


A more promising avenue may be to think about tasks. The White House has reached its current size, and attained a measure of stability, because the major units within it have likewise been stable since Nixon’s presidency. Every president adds some elements that reflect his particular priorities (for George W. Bush, the Offices of Faithbased and Community Initiatives and Homeland Security), but the array of units stays mostly constant (on Bush II, see, e.g., Hult, 2003). These offices can be placed in three categories: outreach, policy processing, and coordination/supervision (Hult & Walcott, 2004; Walcott & Hult, 1995). Units devoted to outreach include press, communications, public (interest group) liaison, personnel, counsel, and congressional relations. These serve to link the presidency to key constituencies and institutions on which its success depends. Among the policy processing units are the staffs of the National Security Council, the National Economic Council, and the domestic policy office, as well as units that are created in response to a president’s agenda or external demands (e.g., homeland security). Such offices serve mainly to coordinate and oversee policy processes and to link the White House to executive branch departments and agencies. Coordinative/ supervisory units operate the White House organization itself, manage decision-making processes, and monitor implementation of decisions. They include the chief of staff’s office, the staff secretariat, and the office of management and administration. Which, if any, of these myriad tasks or units could be either eliminated or placed outside not only the White House but also the Executive Office itself? Policy Offices: White House structuring for coordinating policy decisions dates at least to FDR’s administration, when overseeing the proliferating New Deal agencies became a nearly overwhelming challenge. Yet, the first real stabilization came in the


area of national security, in the aftermath of World War II. The need for coordination and oversight had grown evident during the war, prompting Congress to brush aside the reluctance of President Truman and create such units as the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA, the National Security Council, and, partly in the White House, the NSC staff.16 The first serious domestic policy staff flourished under Joseph Califano in the Johnson administration; it broadened in scope under Nixon, who also extended the same basic model to economic policy. The basic reason for the creation and survival of such structuring is that it responded to important problems of multi-agency policy initiation and coordination -- problems that inevitably and properly gravitate to the White House. That these arrangements also facilitated a stronger presidential role in the policy process scarcely was lost on modern presidents. The most obvious reason why these units would not be targets for downsizing is that the bulk of the staffs of the policy offices are formally lodged elsewhere in the Executive Office of the President, not in the White House Office; during the last two administrations, for example, the National Economic Council and domestic policy staffs have been housed in the Office of Policy Development. Shrinking these staffs would leave the White House proper essentially unscathed. Important substantive reasons also make the policy units unlikely targets. The obvious alternative to policy staffs located in and around the White House is greater reliance on the departments and agencies, both as sources of policy ideas and as coordinators. Yet, although rhetorical calls for greater decentralization (“cabinet government”) still are heard on occasion, nobody has seriously attempted it since Jimmy

Typically, only the top two NSC staffers – the assistant and deputy assistant to the president for national security -- hold White House rank. The remainder of the NSC staff is formally lodged in the Office of the National Security Council in the EOP.


Carter. Even though cabinet members can and normally should be significant policy players, it is extremely unlikely that any president soon will relinquish control of the policy agenda or try to make do without formal White House structuring for policy initiation and coordination. It is instructive to note the current administration’s response to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001: establishment of a policy coordinating body in the EOP, modeled on the cabinet council-staff approach used in other policy areas. Even when homeland security became a department, the White House-based coordinating apparatus remained, since even the new department could hardly include and control all government resources relevant to protection against terrorism. What is true of homeland security remains true of other policy areas as well. Thus, if one is looking for dispensable units in the White House, the “policy side” is an unlikely place to start. Outreach Offices: At least since Nixon, and at a seemingly accelerating pace, the “public presidency” has reigned. Media relations, once the preserve of the White House press secretary, now have come under the simultaneous sway of the office of communications. Under FDR and Truman, formal White House liaison with Congress was shunned as inappropriate. Now the White House boasts liaison offices not only for legislative relations, but for organized interests (“public liaison”) as well. Liaison with state and national parties and state and local officials, long conducted informally, has come under more-or-less formalized political affairs offices. During and after presidential transitions, the White House personnel unit links campaigners and contributors to the presidency through the time-honored institution of patronage, while also identifying possible officeholders who share the president’s values and objectives.


Partisan politics and various forms of public relations consume the lion’s share of staff and attention in the contemporary White House. Virtually all of these developments are easy to understand as responses to the changing political and technological landscapes (see, e.g., Hult & Walcott, 2004, chs. 1, 3-4). The proliferation of media outlets, communication satellites that enable a “24-hour news cycle,” and the multiplication of powerful interest groups seemingly have demanded structural responses if presidents wish to cope. Since the primary purpose of such outreach activities is to protect the political position of the president, it is at least reasonable that the relevant units have been placed close to the president, in the White House. This accretion of outreach structuring, however, has a downside. As could be seen in the last two administrations (although not in that of George H.W. Bush), the everpresent problem of balancing “public relations” and political considerations with those of “good policy” has surfaced. Arguably, the former have tended to outweigh the latter, at least where domestic policy is concerned (Hult, 2000). Beyond morality concerns, the most common criticism of Bill Clinton, for example, was that he too often tended to be led by polls and considerations of popularity. Meanwhile, in the first several months of George W. Bush’s administration, two of his three top aides, Karl Rove and Karen Hughes, were custodians of the Bush image and political standing, not policy wonks. The third member of this early “troika,” chief of staff Andrew Card, was a process manager who was involved in but tended to avoid policy advocacy (Walcott & Hult, 2003, 54-55). It was legitimate to ask, then, whether the White House, the ultimate point


of balance between policy and politics, tilted away from policy. At least one prominent former Bush White House aide, John DiIulio, has argued that it had (Suskind, 2003, 104). Clearly, if there has been such an imbalance, it is not simply a consequence of staff size or composition. If anything, causality runs the other way. Still, the institutionalization of structuring for public relations and politics in the White House cannot but heighten the salience of such considerations, even for so policy-obsessed a president as Bill Clinton. When Dick Morris and Karl Rove figure among the most celebrated of recent presidential aides, heralded in the press for their impact on administration policy, one might at least infer the symptoms of a problem. Yet if the Standard Model has evolved in this direction due to the inexorable unfolding of exogenously induced change, what can be done? For part of a possible answer, we would turn back to the structures that have evolved for policy coordination and deliberation. It is notable that, unlike the outreach offices, the policy units have only minimal -- albeit high ranking -- presence in the White House Office itself. Most of the policy staffs are housed elsewhere in the EOP and thus they are physically as well as organizationally outside of the White House proper. Perhaps implementing analogous formal structuring for at least some of the outreach units might help to rebalance the advisory process. An alternative locus for outreach staffs outside of government also is not hard to conceive. The national party committees have long performed many of these tasks. Indeed, they continue to do so. Unlike Clinton, for instance, G.W. Bush has placed his polling operation at the Republican National Committee -- thus allowing the administration to claim that the White House is not involved in polling (Tenpas, 2003).


Little about this is novel. Pollsters and other political advisors have been “unofficial” White House staffers since at least the Kennedy administration (cf. Eisinger, 2003; Heith, 2003). We would suggest that the Bush approach might be expanded to include more than polling and focus groups. A prime candidate for placement in a national committee setting would be the Office of Public Liaison, the unit that services the interest groups that comprise the party’s base. If analysts – and the U.S. Supreme Court – can agree on anything today, it is that interest groups’ and their money are too closely involved in the political process. Moving the public liaison unit out of the WHO to the national committee could minimize any “appearance of impropriety,” and possibly place at least a minor damper on the unit’s influence (cf. Hess, 2002, 206). Nevertheless, to continue the analogy to the policy units, a top aide or two could remain on the White House staff to provide liaison. One could imagine a similar relocation of the Office of Communications. Unlike the press office, which deals face-to-face with reporters and breaking news, the communications staff is involved primarily in medium-to-long-range planning. Housing the bulk of these aides in the national committee evidently would be a feasible way of shrinking the White House staff and placing PR concerns a bit more at arm’s length, without crippling the needed planning function. A virtually identical argument could be made for the Personnel Office, a laborintensive operation at the outset of any administration, but a rather sleepy one at other times. Here, though, a problem arises. The perspective of the national party with regard to patronage is not, and has not been since FDR’s day (Milkis, 1993), identical to that of


the president. Indeed, presidents wishing to staff their administrations according to criteria of competence, experience, ideology, or loyalty to the president often have encountered resistance from national committee operatives looking to place party regulars. Although decentralizing some personnel-related activities, such as the maintenance of data banks, is clearly feasible, moving the entire personnel unit out of the White House would from the president’s perspective be a mistake. Moving political affairs out of the White House also may be problematic from the standpoint of the president, in part because its location has never stabilized. Dominant political advisors like Morris and Rove basically carry the portfolio with them. When no such person is at hand, the function may be placed in a less visible place, or it may be effectively spread around several units, since politics, after all, is the lifeblood of much of the White House (cf. Bass, 1984, 69). Even so, sometimes, as with Jerry Rafshoon for much of the Carter administration and James Carville under Clinton, significant political advisors frequently do not formally work for the president at all. Moreover, two recent presidents -- Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush -- sought to heighten the involvement of the national committee. Bush in particular “gave his party’s national organization a higher profile than any modern president” (Milkis, 2003, 372). Under party chair Lee Atwater, the president “initially devolved much of the White House’s responsibility for political affairs to the Republican National Committee” (Campbell, 1991, 214). Atwater’s unexpected illness and death, “fundamental disagreements between liberals and conservatives” in the Republican Party, and the lack of similar


efforts by either Clinton or Bush II mean that such an approach remains largely untried (Milkis, 2003, 372).17 Finally, no one would likely advocate moving congressional liaison from the White House (cf. Hess, 2002, 207). Presidential outreach to other elements of the government is quite obviously a governmental function. Anything that seemed to downgrade or distance congressional concerns from the White House would be a major error in presidential dealings with Congress. Thus, although it is not reasonable to propose that the White House “outsource” all outreach activities, it hardly seems beyond the pale to suggest that it could do so with some of them. This alone could have noticeable effects on the overall size and complexity of the White House staff. Coordinating/Supervising Offices: Downsizing any of the operating units in the White House would, in principle, mean somewhat less work for the offices of the Chief of Staff, Staff Secretary, and other managers of decision processes and implementation. One would not expect much difference, however, if the strategy for reducing staff size involved simply moving people and units out of the WHO. Such staffers would still be effectively connected to the presidency and would remain part of the advising and decision processes. As such, they likely would occupy as much of, say, the Staff Secretary’s time as if they were still in the White House. At least this would be true if one assumes (as we do) that the emphasis on a hierarchically structured process of multiple-advocacy decision-making that is one of the hallmarks and central virtues of the Standard Model would (and should) be preserved.


Stephen Hess, for example, continues to contend that many tasks of the political affairs should be moved to the national committee (2002, 206).


Summary: In sum, the most plausible – and, for many, the most desirable – parts of the White House staff that might be downsized and their tasks largely moved elsewhere are those involving polling, outreach to organized interests (“public liaison”), and, possibly, electoral activities (“political affairs”). Clearly, a new president who proposed such changes would no doubt face stiff challenges, especially from groups who have grown used to having “their own” channels into the White House Office. Yet, if no single constituency appeared to be included or excluded (as AIDS advocates and many women’s groups contended they had been at the outset of the George W. Bush administration), then the strength of such challenges might well be diminished, particularly if analogous channels were opened at the national committee and if a senior presidential assistant served as the link to the president and WHO. As already noted, also lodging political affairs in the national committee may be problematic, particularly when the president’s party confronts major internal divisions. Nonetheless, at a time when one distinguished presidential scholar has urged presidents to consider the benefits of “staying private” (Edwards, 2003), perhaps there is an opening for outsourcing some elements of staff outreach. 2. Changing Staff Structuring Almost as a consensus crystallized around the value of the Standard Model for organizing the White House, many of the design prescriptions emanating from the business management and public administration communities began to focus on networks, teams, and flatter hierarchies (e.g., W. Burke, 2002, 289-91; National Performance Review, 1993; Jones, et al., 1997; Thompson, 2003). It is striking how many of the latter discussions highlight informal processes, collegial structuring, and the


importance of flexibility – key features, of course, of the Democratic approach to White House staffing. Perhaps such work can help point to alternatives to some of the structuring included in the Standard Model. Among the primary reasons for recommending additional kinds of structuring and increased flexibility are the heightened task complexity, growing uncertainty, and rising volatility of the settings in which private and public organizations are embedded (e.g., Jones, et al., 1997; Neumann, 1997). Another shared theme is the contingency of organizational responses, that is, the need for structuring to adapt to the prevailing policy or political context (cf. Durant, 1998; Hult & Walcott, 1990; Neumann, 1997, 96). If one views presidents as frequently facing demanding policy and political environments (as most contemporary observers do), then at least two implications for White House structuring follow. First is the importance of “decision streaming,” linking choice opportunities to appropriate structures for decision making (Dror, 1986; cf. Newmann 2003, 206).18 This points to the need for presidential (and probably staff capacity) to “’read’ prevailing policy and political environments” and to see “how a president fits into – and whether and how she or he might shape – these contexts” (Hult, 2000, 41). While the Standard Model might well vest staff responsibility for decision streaming in the chief of staff or a top deputy, less hierarchical alternatives might include delegating it to the top deputy of a senior aide with general oversight for the task area (for example, the deputy NSA) or having a group of senior staffers (with or without presidential participation) make such judgments.


For example, when issues of national security are involved, structuring that brings together a relatively small number of senior officials in face-to-face meetings may be called for. A recent illustration is the Bush “war cabinet” (Woodward, 2002).


A second implication of a complex, relatively volatile presidential decision environment is that more flexible, “multipurpose” structuring that is able to cope with more than one kind of decision appears to be needed (e.g., Walcott & Hult, 1995, 254). Possible illustrations from 20th century administrations include Harry Truman’s daily staff meetings. These sessions provided the president with a vehicle for discussing both policy issues and routine matters with his staff, and permitted Truman “to remain at the center of staff activity and communication” (Walcott & Hult, 1995, 240-41). In addition, long-time executive clerk William Hopkins praised the meetings’ capacity for improving “coordination and the development of good staff relations” (in Heller, 1980, 43). The staff meetings boosted accountability by allowing aides “to listen to the president’s philosophy and get his directions for the day” (Hopkins in Heller, 1980, 78). They also likely heightened presidential effectiveness by improving coordination, permitting the airing of different points of view, and providing the opportunity for presidential resolution of policy disputes. A second example is the Legislative Study Group (LSG) in Reagan’s first-term White House. Colin Campbell reports that the LSG functioned to help crystallize key policy issues for presidential decision and to adjudicate among varying views (1996, 78). Indeed, Press Secretary Larry Speakes has called it “the engine that ran the White House” (quoted in Hess, 2002, 130). Similarly, William W. Newmann (2003) points to the flexible “informal” structures (which we would label collegial structures) that supplemented the more “formal” (or hierarchical) structures in George H. W. Bush’s national security decision processes.


Of course, these sorts of more informal collegial structures often emerge in modern White Houses over time, especially at lower levels.19 At issue here is whether this type of structuring might be recommended at the most senior levels of the White House staff, as an option to the chief of staff operation of the Standard Model. Certainly, most Democratic presidents have preferred the former approach, and future presidents (and senior staff) with organizational experience elsewhere (in less hierarchical, more team-oriented settings) might favor it as well. It appears to us that a more collegial senior staff operation (possibly similar to the Truman staff meetings or to a more wide-ranging version of the Legislative Strategy Group) is a viable alternative if it is accompanied by conditions like the following. First, the overall complexity of the White House staff is reduced at least to the point that the heads of the major policy, outreach, and coordinative/supervisory offices (the “senior staff”) number roughly ten. Second, the president routinely participates in meetings with this “senior staff.” Third, a chief of staff (perhaps better called a “staff coordinator”) would remain and have responsibility for the administrative operation of the White House, including the staff and cabinet secretariats and presidential scheduling.20 Fourth, the deputy assistant in each of the major units would be responsible for the management of the office and for typically serving as the unit’s representative in structures for coordinating activities across offices. Fifth, the policy processing operations would continue much as they do now but would be represented on and monitored by the collegial senior staff body.

One of the difficulties the Carter White House faced was the frequent dearth of such structuring, which can help bridge formally separate units. Not until relatively late in the administration, for example, were ad hoc legislative task forces used to bring together relevant actors from across the White House and executive branch to press for passage of presidential bills in Congress. See Hult & Walcott, 2004, ch. 6. 20 Before September 11, 2001, these duties occupied much of the time of the current chief of staff, Andrew Card. Yet, even in the early months of the administration, Card also reportedly was involved with more political issues. See, e.g., Walcott & Hult, 2003.


This sort of structuring would, much like the original Democratic approach, promise to foster presidential effectiveness by both ensuring that presidential values and priorities were regularly communicated to senior aides and by encouraging consideration by both presidents and senior staffers of differing perspectives when reaching decisions. Particularly over time, sessions both with and without the president might well help “to build trust, teamwork, and collegiality” and strengthen participants’ tendencies to view issues from broader perspectives than their units otherwise might (Newman, 2003, 199).21 Meanwhile, frequent presidential participation should help enforce staff accountability. Clearly, this option also has risks. Some might fear that too close a senior staff could promote groupthink (Janis, 1982) or reinforce tendencies to shut out the comments and advice of cabinet officials or members of Congress. Others might be concerned that lower level staff, distanced from expressions of presidential objectives and priorities, could lose sight of such direction. Probably most important, not all presidents likely would feel comfortable with such arrangements; others would lack “the ringmaster skills” and the discipline needed to operate this sort of system (Campbell, 1996, 69); still others might learn less in a collegial, relatively “open” staff structure (Kowert, 2002). Such a collegial alternative would not be for every president or for any president under all circumstances (for example, in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks). Even so, simply thinking through possible alternatives might help future presidents and their advisors focus more systematically on the possible benefits and costs offered by different ways of organizing the staff.


Although Newmann is referring here to the benefits in national security decision making of meetings of the formal members of the NSC without staff present, it also evidently is an apt description of such settings more generally.


III. Conclusions The evolution of the Standard Model over the past half-century is on balance a good thing. It represents the creation and preservation of institutional memory, and it supplies effective guidance to new presidents. Arguably, its adoption has enhanced both presidential effectiveness and staff accountability. Our purpose in this paper has not been to challenge the validity or value of the Standard Model. It is a generally benign orthodoxy (although see, e.g., Neustadt, 2001). Still, there is something about any orthodoxy that virtually demands critical interpretation. This is especially true in the realm of organization theory where, as we have noted, it has become axiomatic that there is almost never “one best way” to organize; John Burke (2000) has observed the same thing about managing the institutional presidency. Thus, we have tried here to sketch a plausible alternative, or at least supplemental, approach, and to provide the beginnings of a theoretical underpinning for it. Given the wide variety of individuals who become United States presidents, it seems especially valuable to have the widest reasonable range of organizational approaches on the table. When one considers the range of management styles represented by just the last five presidents, it is evident that “one size” cannot be expected to fit all. Although important elements of the Standard Model can be expected to appear in any conceivable White House in the foreseeable future, some variations also seem likely. Not just for Democrats any more, a relatively decentralized, more collegial approach may well be one of them.


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