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Cabinet secretaries versus the White House staff

James Pfiffner

Over most of U.S. history cabinet secretaries have been among the most important formal advisers to presidents, and they exercised important managerial roles in implementing government policies and programs. With the large expansion of the government’s role in the economy in reaction to the Great Depression, Congress provided authority for the creation of the White House staff, which was formalized in the creation of the Executive Office of the President in 1939. The official White House staff began with six advisers to the president, but Presidents Truman and Eisenhower continued to rely heavily on their cabinet secretaries for policy advice.

This began to change when Presidents Kennedy and Johnson began to centralize policy making and advice in the White House staff, though the turning point in the modern presidency was the Nixon administration. Due in part to his distrust of the career bureaucracy, which he thought was biased against his conservative policy goals, President Nixon vastly expanded the White House staff and centralized control in the White House. In foreign policy, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger recruited a large staff and centralized control, overshadowing the State Department. Nixon’s major foreign policy priorities—the Vietnam peace talks, the SALT Treaty, and the opening to China—were all tightly controlled from the White House. In domestic policy, John Ehrlichman recruited the Domestic Policy Council staff, giving the White House an independent policy development capacity that did not depend on the departments and agencies for analysis. For example, among Nixon’s domestic policy initiatives, the Family Assistance Plan, was developed in the White House by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, not in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.

After Watergate, the next three presidents—Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan—each promised to return power and importance to their cabinet secretaries. But the White House staff had grown to more than 500 people, and these presidents were unable and unwilling to reverse the trend of centralization. The White House staff gave presidents tighter control and more attention to their political needs. Cabinet secretaries, however, were subject to centrifugal pressures from congressional committees, departmental clientele, and their own departmental bureaucracies.

Thus, by the late 20th century, major policy functions that used to be performed outside the White House were now integrated into the White House:

  • Domestic policy development that had been done in the policy shops and by the staffs of departmental secretaries was now dominated by the White House domestic policy staff.
  • National Security policy advice and planning had moved from the Departments of State and Defense into an expanded National Security Council staff.
  • Legal advice to the president, which had been dominated by the Department of Justice, was now provided by the White House Counsel and a team of White House lawyers.
  • Trade policy, which had been developed in departments such as State, Commerce, and Agriculture, was now centralized in the US Trade Representative’s Office in the Executive Office of the President.

Additionally, political functions that had previously been performed by the political parties and in Congress were now located in the White House:

  • Recruitment of political appointees, which had been dominated by political parties and heavily influenced by members of Congress was now centralized in the Office of Presidential Personnel, with a large staff during transitions and a significant role throughout a presidential administration.
  • Outreach to interest groups, which had been done by political parties, was now conducted by the Office of Public Liaison in the White House.
  • Party politics, which had been dominated by the Republican and Democratic National Committees, was now centralized in the White House Office of Political Affairs.
  • Building coalitions in Congress has, since the 1950s, been done by the Office of Legislative Liaison in the White House Office.

There were reasons for these changes, of course; the executive branch is huge, comprising a plethora of conflicting and overlapping bureaucracies, and presidents need a coordinating and integrating capacity to rein in and control policy direction in the executive branch. Presidents now, however, take for granted that these functions are in the realm of the White House staff.

Meanwhile, cabinet secretaries understandably resent “interference” from White House staffers. Presidents fill their cabinets with experienced leaders from around the country. These leaders must have some combination of executive experience, policy expertise, partisan credentials, or personal loyalty to the president. They symbolize presidential priorities, represent demographic groups and marshal the support of the clientele of the department they will be leading.

Once in office, cabinet secretaries are seen as advocates for their policy domain, champions for the workers in their departments, and aggressive seekers of budget resources. Predictably, they want presidential attention for their own policy priorities. In recruiting cabinet secretaries, presidents often tell them that they are essential to the success of the administration, that they will be the primary advisers in their policy areas, and that they will have a reasonable amount of discretion in choosing their political appointees. Recent history, however, shows that presidents seldom can keep these promises.

The reality is that cabinet secretaries’ duties and inclinations often put them on a collision course with White House staffers, who are trying to rein them in and harness them to presidential priorities. As Charles Dawes, the first director of the Bureau of the Budget put it “cabinet secretaries are assistant presidents for spending, and as such are the natural enemies of the president.”

Cabinet secretaries naturally resent being overshadowed by White House staffers, who are usually younger than they are and are often seen as political loyalists rather than policy experts. Staffers have access to the president and seem to impose their personal preferences on the cabinet. President Obama’s cabinet secretaries did not appreciate chief of staff Rahm Emanuel treating them as his “minions.”

To illustrate this dynamic, when President Obama came to office, he initially intended to delegate legal policy on detainees at Guantanamo to his attorney general and friend, Eric Holder. Holder accepted the position with the understanding that he would make legal decisions independently of the White House, though of course the president would have the final say. In delegating some of the key legal decisions regarding detainee policy to Attorney General Holder, President Obama wanted to be seen as not letting politics interfere with legal principles. Obama told Holder to make legal decisions on the merits of the law rather than on political grounds.

Exercising his delegated authority, Holder decided to try some 9/11 terrorist suspects in criminal court rather than by military tribunals, and he chose New York City as the venue. The decision caused a political uproar, with congressional leaders threatening legislation to mandate military commissions at Guantanamo and not in the continental United States. Holder’s decisions reinforced White House staffers’ suspicion that he was not sufficiently sensitive to the president’s political interests. Ultimately, the White House staff, particularly chief of staff Emanuel, convinced Obama that the political repercussions of Holder’s decisions were more important than Holder’s legal judgments and his independence from the White House. Obama’s experiment with delegation foundered at the hands of the White House staff, illustrating the imperative of centralized White House control of policy.

Author

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James Pfiffner

University Professor of Public Policy, George Mason University

Thus President Obama continued the 20th century trend of centralizing control in the White House staff, ensuring the frustration of cabinet secretaries. But in the modern presidency, coordination of administration policy from the president’s perspective is essential. The challenge is to maintain a healthy balance between too much centralization and the opposite problem of lack of coordination of policy making and implementation in departments and agencies.

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