Invariably, incoming presidents quote from the “greats”—Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt (FDR). Ronald Reagan in 1980 had an advantage over FDR; he had a clear-cut vision of his goals.1 “The effectiveness of his leadership was based on his [Reagan’s] ability to attract and to use the talents of conservatives, pragmatists, and public relations experts,” claims John Sloan.2 FDR, the eminent political expert, clashed with Rexford Tugwell, his policy expert.3 Sloan observes, “Different advisors imagine many different worlds.”4 Hence, Sloan concludes, “Roosevelt’s strategy to never fully commit to one adviser, or to one school of thought, or to one policy, appears to be fairly rational.”5 This “vision thing” eludes most presidents. The modern presidency (defined as administrations since FDR) contains numerous and specialized experts; nevertheless, “they [White House staff] cannot guarantee that the right policies and programs will emerge and meet the needs of the times,” asserts John P. Burke.6 Great leadership associates with a certain context. America needs different types of leadership at different times. A president whose vision and leadership style effectively manages the institution of the presidency on critical issues may be ranked by historians as a “near-great”; indeed, the size of and specialization within the institutional presidency creates a barrier for achieving the mythical status of the greats.
In this essay I will first summarize salient points about the modern White House from Sloan’s book, papers, and class handouts. Secondly, the main analytical points from Burke’s book with respect to the increasing size and specialization of the Executive Office of the President (EOP) and the use, beginning with President Dwight Eisenhower, of a chief of staff will be discussed and developed. Third, I synthesize class notes and develop some of my own synthesis points. My concluding paragraph reiterates the points analyzed and pulls together my new insights from reading the Burke book and hearing Professor Sloan’s lectures.
Modern White House
A feature of FDR’s “competitive adhocracy” was to keep the White House staff small.7 Also, during FDR’s long presidency from 1933 to 1945, he sought when politically possible to create new government organizations for new government functions.8 FDR mobilized his best thinkers and orchestrated a power grab when he successfully organized a committee to the study the executive branch. The Brownlow committee in 1937 with FDR’s urging recommended in its report the need to increase the size of the White House staff, but did not provide for the appointment by the president of a chief of staff. FDR was his own staff coordinator.9 FDR wanted to know the details; this was his decision-making style. According to Sloan, “New Deal was a non-ideological hodgepodge never dominated by coherent and consistent set of beliefs.”10 Like FDR Reagan was a reconstructive president but with a different decision-making style.
Reagan’s passive administrative style encouraged subordinates to seek solutions of their own.11 Reagan’s rhetoric pointed out the correct direction, and it was up to his subordinates to fell in the details.12 Sloan believes, “Reagan unmindfully ‘used’ his staff to a much greater degree than is generally understood.”13 Reagan’s decision-making created the potential for both big successes and big failures.14 Sloan contends, “… that Reagan succeeded partly by design, partly by compromise, and partly by muddling through.”15 Whereas Reagan avoided details, Jimmy Carter relished them. Carter assumed responsibility for a multitude of issues. This style worked for FDR but was not successful for Carter; the cognitive demands on him were overwhelming.16 In thinking about FDR and Reagan, Sloan concludes, “Evidently, there is more than one decision-making style that can be employed by a successful reconstructive president.”17
All modern presidents need a variety of advisors. Even though FDR may have been the most politically astute president of the twentieth century, he recognized that the New Deal was too big and complex to be directed by him alone.18 FDR launched the Brownlow committee because he knew he needed a larger staff. He still refused to follow any one economist’s advice about ending the depression; they could not agree among themselves.19 The chronic conflict among officials served the political purpose of Reagan.20 During Reagan’s administration the pragmatists lead by James Baker supplied the Washington experience and know-how to get things done.21 Presidents need to use different perspectives. Advisors can discover what is wrong and then make recommendations for new policies. By 2003, the EOP’s budget was 331 million dollars and its personnel numbered 1858.22 According to Edwards and Wayne, “The principal object of the EOP is to help presidents perform the central, nondelegable tasks, including those involved in their expanded policy-making roles.23
FDR proved himself to be a great communicator in his “fireside chats.” Even though FDR cobbled together his three-man “brains trust,” the brains trust was never able to supply FDR with a coherent program that he was willing to publicize as the New Deal game plan.24 One of the distinct benefits of specialization within the White House staff results from good public relations. Reagan effectively utilized public relations. Carter, on the other hand, was a bundle of contradictions; he could not attract mass support.25 Sloan says, “A regime’s core set of public policies will indicate its strategic priorities.”26 These policies need to be favorably communicated to the voters. President George W. Bush has encountered problems because of his public statements about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. When intelligence experts did not find any, policy officials within the White House instructed the experts to dig deeper. Douglas Jehl in his newspaper article called this “politicization.”27
For presidents the key to good advisors is loyalty to them, first and foremost, especially pertaining to their chiefs of staff. For example, Raymond Moley’s job was to ensure that FDR was the activist, progressive leader he longed to be.28 Similarly, Harry Hopkins was willing to act decisively to support FDR’s leadership.29 There was a difference in having a chief of staff: FDR selected those to whom he gave access and Reagan’s staff controlled who had access.30 What does a chief of staff do? He serves as a lightning rod. For example, Richard Nixon in 1972 used H. R. Haldeman to ask all the cabinet secretaries for their resignations. This is why most modern presidents have chiefs of staff.
The power has shifted from the departments and agencies to the EOP. The politicization as introduced above has lessened the role of civil servants no matter what their expertise. Political appointees coming mainly from a president’s ardent campaigners fill the White House staff and dominate activities.31 One of the leadership challenges of the modern presidency is as follows: to recruit, structure, and interact with an administrative team (White House staff and cabinet) that will be dedicated to and skillful in helping the President to fulfill his or her political purposes and visions.32 How do presidents see reality in such a political place? Presidents are accorded great deference. These appeals are to their vaulted egos which probably got them to the White House. Does truth elude the presidents in such a climate? Politicization occurs when presidents and their advisors put a spin on a decision. Real problems may result when these spins are not truthful.
John P. Burke’s book The Institutional Presidency
The Brownlow committee wanted to issue recommendations that would enhance FDR’s role as a manager. The Brownlow committee in 1937 stressed, “The President needs help and they [executive assistants] should be possessed of…a passion for anonymity.” His opposition dubbed the legislation the “Dictator Bill” so FDR battled for two years and in 1939 did not get nearly all that he wanted from the Brownlow committee’s report. The legislation did establish the EOP and transferred the Bureau of the Budget from the Treasury Department to the EOP.33 FDR’s aides were by and large generalists. He fostered competition between his aides. At this time the White House serves the man and the rest work for the office. No later president replicated this competitive arrangement. Even with differences FDR left his successors with an emerging structure, but little in the way to manage it and serve their ends.34
Michael Nelson in the Foreword to Burke’s first edition (1992) described how previous literature confused the person of the office with the presidency—an individual or an institutional perspective.35 Burke recognized the tension between having a large White House staff and making it work effectively as well as experiences of presidents and members of their staff in resolving that tension.36 The president occupies a unique position: only he has the power and authority to curb staff members’ ambitions for political limelight and use of leaks to advance their own interests and hurt their opponents. The president exercises great discretion over how units of the EOP are organized. And especially what role they play in the day-to-day workings of the presidency. A singular reliance on the White House staff can limit channels of information and advice available to the president. Multiple advocacy exposes the president to risk and diverse streams of information and advice. Attention to staff organization may be an important ingredient of a president’s managerial success while inattention may bode failure.37 “A president who is unable to manage the White House staff will probably be unable to manage much else.”38 Therefore, candidates’ prepresidential experiences are important.39 Eisenhower’s management of D-Day certainly prepared him administratively to be our president. Burke generally characterized Eisenhower’s and Richard Nixon’s presidencies are formal, and John Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s as collegial. Nixon delegated to an extreme because of his paranoia, leading his many distracters to see his administration as validating criticisms of a formalistic staff system. The experiences of Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, and Johnson reveal the need to tailor formal and collegial styles of management to the organizational setting in which they are applied.40 For George H. W. Bush the author recognized how Bush handled domestic and foreign policies differently. Burke argues, “President can (and may need to) pursue different managerial strategies depending upon the particular area of policy and the president’s own strengths and weaknesses as a decision maker in those different domains.”41 A president should not get to comfortable with his key advisors; unfamiliarity and discomfort might facilitate correction.42 The modern presidency is a large-scale organization with the following characteristics: complexity, fragmentation, competition, and self-serving advocacy. Certain traits cross modern presidencies and stem from institutional sources. These traits are: (1) centralization of control over policy-making process by the White House staff, (2) centralization of power within the staff in one or two key aides, and (3) emergence of behavior and routines typical of bureaucratic organizations. Presidents need to be equipped to handle these traits. Carter was ill-equipped and his administration was disastrous. This lead the way for Reagan to come in as a reconstructive president. Bill Clinton practiced adhocracy, but vastly different from the competitive adhocracy used by FDR. These later administrations of the modern presidency emphasize that the managerial and organizational tasks of harnessing the resources of the institutional presidency remain vitally important.43 Excessive change in response to demands issuing from the environment may call into question the institution’s ability to differentiate itself from its environment.44 Burke partly concludes his fine scholarship with this: “…awareness of the organizational context in which a president operates and the relation of that context to staff organization and management is likely to be an important factor in managing, for better or worse, the institutional presidency.”45
The White House staff continued to grow in size from 1938 until the peak in Nixon’s presidency. A president’s personality and managerial style affect staff operations.46 The other approach views staff as an independent variable rather than a dependent variable meaning the continuity in the organization and performance transcends proclivities of individual presidents.47 A president with a collegial style like Johnson (with his Tuesday lunches to discuss Vietnam) can fall into the trap called “groupthink.” During these lunches there was consensus without vital debate. The cure is to add formal mechanisms to bolster expectations.48 The large complex EOP generates certain institutional characteristics that affect how it operates. The president at the pinnacle must understand how each unit is brought together. Each office and council of the roughly twelve units within the EOP has some effect on the presidency; each relates to and reinforces the others.49 Terry Moe’s term “responsive competence” declares that the president wants an institutional system responsive to his needs as a political leader.50 Presidents try to shape the nation’s policy agenda, and staff resources at their disposal enhance their ability to do so.51 With the increasing complexity and differentiation, expertise within this executive institution is expected by American voters. Effective staff members provide useful resources for a president and markedly improve the odds for success.52 Eisenhower often sought neutral competence even though such appointees usually think more independently than personal staff does. A citizen expects problems of loyalty in bureaucratic politics, and these expectations are sometimes realized because such problems are endemic to large-scale organizations.53 Furtherance of personal priorities and career goals can affect attitudes and behavior. The Brownlow committee said advisors should have “passion for anonymity.” In spite of loyalty problems, most modern presidents because of the institutional complexity have turned to a chief of staff as their central authority. An overzealous chief of staff, for example, John Sununu under George H. W. Bush, can work against political interests by acted as a “gatekeeper,” thereby isolating the president. A meeting of former chiefs of staff viewed their proper role to be: “properly limited to coordination rather than substantive involvement in the making of policy.”54
Synthesis of Class Notes
The president is not the lone ranger. FDR wanted generalists because they were more likely to be loyal to him. Eisenhower came to the presidency in 1952. His prepresidential experience could not have been better. Eisenhower is the father of the organizational presidency. A lot of his organizational ideas have taken over rather than FDR’s. Political parties really started in Washington’s first administration with Adams, Jefferson, and Hamilton. Political parties are needed for a democracy. Therefore, a president surrounds himself with spin control people. Political streams of information come from advisors. Can the president see the truth? How will he deal with his advisory staff? He must recruit, structure, and interact with it. The president will make the decisions when presented with the options. A president must know what his political purposes are. In order to govern outside the White House, the president must accept the organization within the White House. Typically, modern presidents before announcing their candidacies are coy about whether or not they are running for the office. Once he decides to run, then political leadership defines where he wants to lead us. He must convey a vision during the campaign. Robert Tucker reasons that he must diagnose the nation’s problems, find a formula to remedy the problems, create policy solutions, and mobilize support for the solutions. This is what FDR did with social security. Presidents posture that they are following public opinion rather than leading it. They are capable of benign deception.
What is the effect of the office on the man? In the modern presidency the responsibilities overstep and overwhelm the resources. Terry Moe explains that the president is expected to do something. This pressure on him causes insecurity. Thus, he wants resources at his immediate disposal and not out there in the departments and agencies. This reliance on one-sided advice from his personal staff does reduce a president’s access to neutrally competent advice. Presidents think they personify public interests. Presidents in the highly charged political culture of the White House must be in touch with reality with respect to the public interests if they are going to make rational decisions. George Reedy in his book Twilight of the Presidency (1970) views this as a systemic problem.
“Go Washington” affects the staff structure and behavior also. These are the primary factors: reactions to the previous administration, idea of cabinet advisors pretty well dead, meteoric emphasis on winning the presidency and foggy thinking after winning, recruiting staff and looking forward to a fair amount of success, and the pressure of time since have four years for sure and seats can be lost in the House after only two years in office. This is why pragmatists who have experience in Washington are genuinely necessary. Good public relations people are worth their weight in gold. Michael Deaver was very effective in this role for Reagan. Even Reagan’s funeral was masterfully planned and executed.
There are reasons for the growth of the White House staff. It began as a response to national emergencies. FDR faced the depression beginning in March 1933 and then World War II began on December 7, 1941. In times of emergencies the American people really expect the president to do something. George W. Bush acted decisively to “9/11.” He quickly set up the Office of Homeland Security. Presidents also distrust the bureaucrats located in the departments and agencies. Cabinet secretaries have a tendency to “go native.” Walter Hickel, the Secretary of the Interior under Nixon, leaked sensitive environmental information to the press. The White House staff starts duplicating American society. An example is George W. Bush’s faith-based office since he has professed his Christianity and many of his followers are from the religious right. American society empowers plurality. Presidents use their public relations staff to liaison with different interest groups.
Politicization is driving this process characterized by large-scale and specialized staff. Moe calls this a “politicized presidency.” You can have all the expertise out in the departments and not help. Interest groups demand more and more. The pressures are enormous. Moe says you need a rational response. A rational response is to increase public relations. Politicization is responsive competence. There are costs involved. Politicization can undermine neutral streams of information. This festers into groupthink. Here are several examples of politicization in practice within different administrations. David Stockman in 1981 politicized budget projections in the Reagan presidency. Eisenhower suffered from a severe heart attack. His medical advisors politicized his medical reports and hide the truth from the American public. The Employment Act created the Council of Economic Advisors. These advisors were supposed to operate as neutral economists. The first chairman was Edwin Nourse, and he wanted to present a candid economic report based upon his economic expertise. Clark Clifford, the shrewd legal counsel to Truman, informed Nourse that Clifford would review and edit. What about the wily FDR? In 1936 FDR was elected by a landslide. The depression at this time was not fully remedied. But FDR still announced that he would balance the budget. FDR made cuts and the recession of 1937-38 followed. FDR blamed the recession on capitalists out to destroy the New Deal. This is FDR confronting an unpleasant fact. Presidents are surrounded by public relations experts and they use them. The first head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was doing a report on the controversial topic of global warming. The White House demanded to see the report before it was released. Christy Whitman, the chairperson of the EPA, then leaked information to the New York Times. George W. Bush claimed Iraq was trying to buy uranium from Niger. Clinton before the dress surfaced had a release ready to go that Monica Lewinsky was a stalker.
Sloan says to think of political advisors as oranges: “squeeze the juice out and discard.” This seems somewhat hypocritical since most advisors come from the campaign reservoir. But Washington is not a venue for the faint-hearted idealist. What does the staff do for the president? They lobby in the Congressional halls. Eisenhower created a liaison staff and it stuck and became institutionalized. The president cannot recruit, screen, and hire all of his personnel. He cannot interact with all interest groups and the press. The modern presidency has a press secretary. His time has to be rationed. He cannot plan the details for each day. His appointments secretary does this for him. In short, the president cannot know enough technically and politically. He needs staff to serve his political purpose. Factions are likely to form. Hopefully, he can meld them into a team; he is vitally concerned with the success of his administration. Do not underestimate political advisors. FDR sent Harry Hopkins as his personal emissary to meet with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. Carter sent Hamilton Jordan to Panama to solicit help for the Shah of Iran who had cancer. Henry Kissinger as the National Security Advisor under Nixon was involved in operations. Kissinger completely overshadowed the State Department. Moe insists this is just a continuation of what has been happening since FDR. These examples show the continual conflict between institutional and personal staff. Presidents turn to advisors they are close to, and advisors they can trust.
Presidents in centralizing in the White House began trending toward specialization with FDR. FDR hired Lauchlin Currie as an economic specialist in 1939. There are media specialists, pollsters, and domestic policy specialists. Specialists are difficult to coordinate because they speak their own languages. Kennedy and Johnson used task forces. Johnson had Joe Califano develop internal resources within the White House. Nixon relied on Ehrlichman for domestic policy and Kissinger for foreign policy. Carter had a domestic policy staff. In 1947 under Harry Truman the National Security Council (NSC) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) came into being. NSC and CIA represent legal and budgetary significance. Eisenhower was the first to have a NSC advisor, and he made sure adequate information came before the NSC. Kennedy decides to elevate the NSC under McGeorge Bundy after Bay of Pigs debacle. Presidents now get legal counsel from White House counsel. The offices in the White House borrow people from departments so as to avail themselves of the manpower and expertise. Personnel from the military work in the NSC, for example. FDR started this trend. These borrowed public servants are called “detailees.” How are you going to run all this? You need a chief of staff. Moe argues you need the central authority of the chief of staff for managing specialization. Eisenhower was the first to appoint a chief of staff.
Eisenhower coming out of the military for political reasons called Sherman Adams his assistant. What does the chief of staff do? He has the administration focused on the strategic priorities. He makes sure the president’s time is efficiently used. He helps the president present his best image for good approval ratings. He makes sure decisions serve the political purposes of the administration. He supervises the epicenter which is the West Wing of the White House The chief of staff sets the tone for the staff. The president looks good if he is not blindsided on an issue. The 9/11 tragedy could have been a political bomb for George W. Bush. Policy, political, and public relations streams of information flow up to the presidency. The chief of staff manages this flow. He distills, processes, and condenses information coming up into a set of politically relevant options. Political solutions must be feasible. Nixon wanted to be isolated so Haldeman exercised enormous powers as a gatekeeper. Carter tried to function like his Democratic predecessors without one. He finally submitted and appointed Jordan. Reagan had four, but Baker was clearly the best. John Sununu got a little full of himself under George H. W. Bush and was fired. Clinton had four chiefs, and none became gatekeepers. They tried to keep Clinton from committing personal indiscretions. The chief of staff as the process manager seems institutionalized regardless of who occupies the Oval Office. If a chief of staff does not properly set the options, the president can show him the door.
What the president does has to be politically feasible. Look how Eisenhower handled Vietnam. He was open to unpleasant facts, and decided he would not support the French. He crafted a political solution: the communists got the north and the South Vietnamese retained the south until elections could be held in two years. Presidents are far more powerful than the Founding Fathers foresaw. They have scaled to the top of a very greasy pole. With the resources of mass media, they have a “bully pulpit” (as Teddy Roosevelt liked to say) since they hold the microphone. Moe instructs the use of a “permanent campaign” to keep the best political ratings. The budget and staff are used for increased access to the public. These increased resources can be overwhelmed by the increased responsibilities. The president may feel under siege. He can move out of the bunker by using his specialists. He is concerned with the success of his administration. He visits Mount Rushmore and says, “if only I could achieve that status.” No one is qualified to be president of the United States. It is difficult to be the political leader of the United States because of the contradictory expectations. He is expected to be tough and compassionate at the same time, decisive and compromising, idealistic and cynical, and ordinary and extraordinary. But consider the success of Reagan as a reconstructive president coming in with a clear vision after four tumultuous years under the well-meaning but overwhelmed Carter at the helm. A good metaphor envisions of the president as the navigator and captain of the ship of state trying to get to a specific port. Great and near-great presidents have vision. If a president is to achieve near greatness, then he or she must have vision. A severe crisis may create another near-great president. The institutional presidency is a difficult job but doable. A new president can be a “magic bullet.” This is what Americans hope for in a visionary leader.
1 John W. Sloan, “The Decision-Making Styles of Two Reconstructive Presidents: Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan” (paper presented at Conference on the Reagan Presidency, University of California, Santa Barbara, Calif., March 2002), 14.
2 John W. Sloan, The Reagan Effect: Economics and Presidential Leadership (Lawrence, Kans.: University Press of Kansas, 1999), x.
3 John W. Sloan, “Providing Visions for a Reconstructive President: Advising FDR” (paper presented at Southwestern Social Science Convention, San Antonio, Tex., April 2003), 24.
4 John W. Sloan, “Advising FDR: Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Henry Wallace, Harry Hopkins” (paper presented at Southern Political Science Association, New Orleans, La., January 2004), 1.
5 Sloan, “Providing Visions.”
6 John P. Burke, The Institutional Presidency: Organizing and Managing the White House from FDR to Clinton (Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), 177.
7 John W. Sloan, “FDR’s ‘competitive adhocracy’” (class handout).
10 Sloan, “Providing Visions.”
11 Sloan, “The Decision-Making Styles,” 30.
12 Sloan, Reagan Effect, 95.
13 Ibid., 102.
14 For example, the Iran-Contra debacle, see Sloan, “Decision-Making Styles,” 32.
15 Sloan, Reagan Effect, x.
16 Ibid., 38.
17 Sloan, “Decision-Making Styles,” 35.
18 Ibid., 18.
19 Ibid., 7.
20 Sloan, Reagan Effect, 80.
21 Ibid., 88.
22 Edwards and Wayne, Presidential Leadership, 147, 196 (class handout).
23 Ibid., 196.
24 Sloan, “Providing Visions,” 22. Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, and Adolf Berle were the brains trust. See John W. Sloan, “Advising FDR” (class handout) for the value of each man to FDR.
25 Sloan, Reagan Effect, 51.
26 John W. Sloan, “Core Policies of the New Deal” (paper presented at American Political Science Convention, Chicago, Ill., September 2004), 1.
27 Douglas Jehl, “Tug of War: Intelligence vs. Politics,” The Wall Street Journal, 8 May 2005.
28 Sloan, “Providing Visions,” 6.
29 Sloan, “Advising FDR,” 33.
30 John W. Sloan, “Table 1: Characteristics of Franklin Roosevelt’s and Ronald Reagan’s Decision Making Styles” (class handout).
31 Edwards and Wayne, Presidential Leadership, 196.
32 John W. Sloan, “Table 1. The Leadership Challenges of the Modern Presidency” (class handout). Burke makes this the primary point of his famous book.
33 John P. Burke, The Institutional Presidency (Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), xi, 10-11.
34 Ibid., 28, 56, 3.
35 Michael Nelson, foreword to The Institutional Presidency, by John P. Burke (Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), viii.
36 Burke, Institutional Presidency, xii.
37 Ibid., 104, 54, 91, 97, 59.
38 Ibid., 222.
39 Burke, Institutional Presidency, 2nd ed., xiii.
40 Burke, Institutional Presidency, 72, 88.
41 Burke, Institutional Presidency, 2nd ed., 176.
42 Ibid., 207.
43 Ibid., 202.
44 Burke, Institutional Presidency, 43, 35, 50.
45 Burke, Institutional Presidency, 2nd ed., 221.
46 Burke, Institutional Presidency, 25.
48 Ibid., 77.
49 Ibid., xiv.
50 Burke, Institutional Presidency, 2nd ed., 209.
51 Burke, Institutional Presidency, 34.
52 Burke, Institutional Presidency, 2nd ed., 222.
53 Ibid., 211,138.
54 Burke, Institutional Presidency, 47, 32, 41-42, 100.
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