David B. Cohen is a Professor of Political Science. Karen M. Hult is a Professor of Political Science. Charles E. Walcott is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science.

I. INTRODUCTION

Chiefs of staff to U.S. presidents have been the source of frequent attention. With that spotlight has come a variety of self-described titles, including Sherman Adams’s “abominable no man” and Jack Watson’s “javelin catcher.” Others have characterized the aides as presidential alter egos, the first among equals on the White House staff, and lightning rods for presidential criticism.

The White House chief of staff (COS)—a job first appearing under Dwight Eisenhower—is a critical position that can shape the overall success or failure of a presidency. Scholars have sought to better understand the emergence, evolution, and performance of the post and its supporting office. [2] Although the job of chief of staff has many common elements across administrations, key differences almost always reflect differing presidential work styles and preferences about how the office – and the presidency – should operate.

Here, we employ role analysis to focus on the primary roles and activities of chiefs of staff, underscoring their links to presidential governance.[3] Our role analysis focuses upon the socially defined expectations that persist over time and across presidential administrations. In Table One we list the chiefs of staff who have served since the beginning of the Nixon administration.

White House Chiefs of Staff, 1969-2021

Source: Compiled by the Authors.

II. ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF CONTEMPORARY CHIEFS OF STAFF

Considerable research has examined the variety of roles that chiefs and their immediate aides perform. Several major duties have emerged, capturing among them the key responsibilities of chiefs of staff. We highlight four roles that chiefs typically assume: administrator, guardian, advisor, and proxy. Neither mutually exclusive nor collectively exhaustive, these roles often overlap. For example, effective administration may produce mutually informing flows of advice, while helping guard a president’s scarce time and attention. Other times, the roles may pull in different directions. The chief of staff must frequently say no; yet if other staffers are too consistently thwarted, it may dampen their commitment and suggestions of creative ideas and strategies while encouraging competition fueled by personal ambition.

A. Managerial Roles

Two roles of chiefs of staff—administrator and guardian—encompass myriad tasks. Most fundamentally, the chief is the manager of the White House. Some presidents have tried to become deeply involved in the day-to-day running of the White House organization, but most learn that it is not a good use of their time. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton went through an initial period in which they relied on a “spokes-of-the-wheel” arrangement, which placed them at the centre of everything. The two finally accepted that having a strong COS was a better option. Since then, President Donald Trump has been an outlier; he experimented with a weak chief of staff (Reince Priebus), then turned to a stronger one (John Kelly) before dismissing Kelly and returning to something closer to the spokes-of-the-wheel, albeit with a formal chief of staff as a major spoke (Mick Mulvaney, Mark Meadows). Trump chafed at being “managed,” yet his White House likely will not be held up as a model for emulation. Following recommended best practice, President-elect Joseph Biden’s first appointment was Ron Klain as chief of staff.

1. Administrator

At its most basic, the chief of staff as administrator oversees the White House political and policy processes and manages the president’s time and attention. Chiefs of staff are responsible for the operation of the White House Office and often are blamed if processes fail, much as Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and the Obama White House discovered with the flawed roll-out of Healthcare.gov. COS Reince Priebus discovered this on his first full day in the job when Trump ordered the White House Press Secretary into the press briefing room to exaggerate the size of the inaugural crowd. The blowback from this was swift and intense, with much of the criticism targeted at Priebus for not preventing the briefing from occurring. The directors of other White House units, sometimes with the exception of the national security assistant, are expected to report to and through the chief of staff. What has been called the “standard model” of the White House decision making system, based on principles of inclusion and multiple advocacies, operates out of the chief of staff’s office.[4]

At the same time, the chief of staff must protect the president by screening out matters that are not worthy of their time or attention. Leon Panetta, President Clinton’s second chief of staff, is widely credited with more effectively regulating the President’s time by forcing the policy and political processes to go through the Office of the Chief of Staff and be screened by the chief before going to the Oval Office.

In addition, chiefs of staff are responsible for numerous other administrative tasks, including selection and guidance of White House personnel, staff organization, and controlling flows of people and communications. To pursue these, most chiefs of staff rely, on the one hand, on the overall White House hierarchy that their office directs. Specialized, typically hierarchical subsidiary structures gather information and issue guidance. These arrangements contribute to helping ensure staff accountability and consistent administration messages.

On the other hand, such channels often are complemented by regular meetings of administration officials, located within and outside of the chief of staff’s office. These sessions also serve as venues for exchanging intelligence, dividing work, issuing orders, and at least quasi-resolving disagreements. They can range from daily meetings of the “senior staff” to less frequent “planning group” sessions to “issues lunches.” For example, under President Obama, Chief of Staff McDonough presided over daily half-hour meetings of the senior staff at 7:45 a.m. followed by a larger meeting of approximately 30 senior and mid-level aides; at these sessions, McDonough directed staffers to take specific actions, which he closely monitored to assure their completion.[5]

Among the challenges of relying on such mechanisms is assuring that they include key participants who contribute relevant information and ideas. Obama COS McDonough and Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors, for instance, met routinely with department secretaries and their deputies to explore activities that did not require legislative action. Not including relevant parties in decisions and planning can be costly. President George W. Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, unknowingly passed along misinformation to the press regarding the CIA leak case because he did not participate in important meetings, all but destroying his credibility as a spokesperson.

Reliance on hierarchical structuring as an administrative tool also involves challenges, as the shift in the chief of staff position from Mack McLarty to Leon Panetta under President Clinton, from Rahm Emanuel to William Daley under President Obama, and from Reince Priebus to John Kelly under President Trump suggests. For example, when Kelly took over for Priebus in August 2017, he moved quickly to serve as a sentry at the Oval Office revolving door, install staff discipline, and bring more order to a chaotic White House. Although at the outset it appeared that Kelly would succeed in professionalizing the Trump White House and managing the President’s time, he ultimately failed, particularly because Trump, himself, resisted Kelly’s efforts.

At the same time, chiefs of staff vary in the attention they pay to administration. Andrew Card and Joshua Bolten, George W. Bush’s chiefs, were omnipresent in most significant policy discussions, including those on foreign policy and national security; they also sat in on meeting others had with the President. Other chiefs of staff such as Reince Priebus, Mick Mulvaney, and Mark Meadows, working for the notoriously undisciplined Donald Trump, took more hands-off approaches. Moreover, throughout the Trump presidency, a number of staff and administration personnel had walk-in privileges to the Oval Office without the chief of staff or a deputy being present.

2. Guardian

Also part of the chief of staff’s job is screening the information, issues, and individuals that reach the Oval Office. Generally, chiefs of staff are charged with protecting the president’s time and their interests from intrusive news media, a bothersome Congress, wayward administration members, or even the consequences of the president’s own actions. Chiefs of staff frequently must perform unpopular tasks such as firing personnel, saying “no” to specific requests, and generally acting as the president’s enforcer. Thus, Richard Cheney described himself as President Ford’s “SOB,” while Chief of Staff John Sununu was often called the “bad cop” to President George H.W. Bush’s good cop.[6]

Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman memorably recalled that President Nixon routinely needed to be protected from himself:

Time and again I would receive petty vindictive orders…after a Senator made a Vietnam War speech: “Put a 24-hour surveillance on that bastard.” And so on and on. If I took no action, I would pay for it. The President never let up…I’d say “I’m working on it,” and delay until Nixon would one day comment with a sort of half-smile on his face, “I guess you never took action on that, did you?” “No.” “Well, I guess it was the best thing….”[7]

As President Nixon, himself, later wrote, “A good chief-of-staff is seldom popular. He must carry out tough decisions…that his boss makes but is reluctant to execute… [and] he sometimes finds he doesn’t have many friends or supporters.”[8]

Chiefs of staff often act protectively on a wide range of issues. Deputy COS Michael Deaver recalls being enlisted to help protect President Reagan:

The first day in the White House, [James Baker] pulled up a chair to my desk and said, ‘Look…you and I have got to make a pact here. Those guys in the National Security Council want to get us in a war in Central America. Now, we’ll be out of here so fast it will make your head swim if we get ourselves in a war down there. So you need to keep your eyes and ears open, and I do too.’[9]

Less dramatically, early in the Obama presidency, Rahm Emanuel refereed disputes within the Administration over the size and nature of the 2009 fiscal stimulus. A similar pattern appeared in other legislative victories, including the Affordable Care Act during which the Chief served as a frequent lightning rod  Arguably, this was exactly the role of a guardian and the reason Obama appointed Emanuel: to push his legislative agenda forward.

Chiefs of staff are expected never to take credit for White House successes but to take the blame when things go awry. As Carter Chief of Staff Jack Watson famously said, they are supposed to catch the javelins aimed at the president. Chiefs of staff who eschew a javelin-catching role and instead try to avoid blame tend not to remain in the White House, as Trump chief of staff John Kelly illustrates. President Trump’s final chief of staff, Mark Meadows, tried another approach, concentrating on communications and domestic policy, much as his immediate predecessor Mick Mulvaney emphasized deregulation and budget savings.

Other challenges are predictable as presidential reelections approach. James Baker, for instance, reminded the directors of the public liaison and intergovernmental relations operations in the Reagan White House about the coming increases in scrutiny from the new media and Congress, outlining permissible activities and requiring coordination through the chief of staff’s office. In contrast, the Trump reelection efforts started almost immediately following the inauguration, with campaign-like rallies and travel scheduled mostly in states where he had won significant victories. Throughout the term, Trump Administration officials were the subjects of routine campaign finance and ethics charges.

B. Policy and Politics

Two other roles that chiefs of staff perform emphasize more substantive activities. Chiefs frequently are advisors, presidential proxies, or both.

1. Advisor

Chiefs of staff are usually important political and policy advisor to the president. As a conduit to the president for much of the rest of the staff and administration, the chief of staff routinely is counselled to act as an “honest broker,” assuring that the president is exposed to a range of relevant opinions and expertise. Still, the chief is expected to hold and share their own unfiltered opinions when the president solicits them. Although relationships between presidents and chiefs of staff have varied, many chiefs have become integral members of the inner circle of advisors to whom the president listens most closely. This can be crucial since chiefs often are the last people presidents see before they make important decisions. For example, one recalls that following President Obama’s walk around the White House lawn with Chief of Staff McDonough after a national security session on possible U.S. responses to Syria’s use of sarin gas, the President decided not to authorize an attack. Chief of Staff James Baker described this critical task as the need to be willing to tell presidents unpleasant truths and to provide counsel “with the bark off.”[10]

This would seem to be an inevitable consequence of a chief’s ready access to the president. Even chiefs of staff who have sought to be neutral policy brokers still have had to make decisions about the issues and information that would and not go to the president. Even when a COS intentionally seeks not to be an advocate, their judgments about policy and politics may be influential. According to presidential scholar Bradley Patterson, a White House staffer for Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford, presidents expect chiefs of staff to express their own views while not shutting out or distorting others’ perspectives.[11] Even so, it is important to put such comments into a broader context. Apart from routine duties, the chief’s advisory role depends upon their relationship with the president and on the constellations of other advisors in and around the White House.

Additionally, the chief of staff’s capacity to serve as an advisor depends on their experience and expertise. A COS who had been a member of Congress—such as Howard Baker, Leon Panetta, Rahm Emanuel, Mick Mulvaney, or Mark Meadows—almost certainly will be a trusted advisor on legislative matters. Emanuel devoted much of his time to serving as a policy advisor to President Obama. Not shy about his own opinions influencing policy decisions, he participated in all major policy initiatives, was a valued member of the inner circle, and frequently played the “bad cop” to the President’s good. Relative newcomers to Washington, particularly to White House positions—such as Donald Regan, John Sununu, Samuel Skinner, William Daley, Reince Priebus, and John Kelly—are less apt to assume this role, at least at the outset. As a former business executive and Secretary of the Treasury, though, Regan frequently presented economic and budget data to the president.

John Sununu and Rahm Emanuel illustrate the reputational risks that chiefs of staff run when they act as advisors. Despite Sununu’s comment that he considered “one of his responsibilities” to be an honest broker, his reputation became one as a policy advocate who frequently was dismissive and intimidating.[12] Similar criticism was levelled at Emanuel, who reportedly confronted difficulties brokering disagreements since he so often was an advocate.

2. Proxy

Chiefs of staff frequently must stand in for the president. They may assume a range of activities, such as meeting and negotiating with members of Congress, speaking to constituency groups, or communicating presidential positions to the media.

Chiefs often serve as liaisons between the White House and Congress. Although many members of Congress crave direct communication with the president, legislators look to chiefs of staff to convey administration policy and presidential preferences. Most recent chiefs have spent considerable time on congressional relations, at least since James Baker in the first Reagan term.  Baker, for example, routinely met with members of Congress to secure support on legislation important to the Administration. Later in the Reagan presidency, COS Howard Baker worked to counter congressional concerns about President Reagan’s control over the administration in light of the Iran-contra findings.

Most modern chiefs, especially those that had been former members of Congress (H. Baker, Panetta, Emanuel, Mulvaney, and Meadows) or OMB directors (Panetta, Bolten, Lew, and Mulvaney) have been the chief budget negotiators for the White House. Nonetheless, during the Trump term, even though Mick Mulvaney served concurrently as OMB director and acting chief of staff, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin took the lead in negotiations over the Federal debt ceiling after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi publicly questioned Mulvaney’s credibility; later, Mnuchin served as a go-between in the second COVID-19 relief package.

Another key dimension of the proxy role is interacting with the media. These relations have evolved gradually. James Baker recalled that one of his predecessors, Richard Cheney, had recommended that he devote considerable time to talking to the news media off the record, a task at which Baker excelled.[13] Yet, close to a decade later, Leon Panetta regularly met with the press for both formal and informal briefings on the record. Similarly, chief of staff John Podesta became a visible and public spokesperson for President Clinton and the entire administration during the intern scandal and ensuing impeachment. More than twenty years later, however, as Donald Trump faced his first impeachment, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney made few public appearances, leaving it to other surrogates to press the President’s case in the media.

The extent and nature of any particular chief of staff’s activities as a proxy may reflect a lack of presidential interest in engaging in these activities, strategic decisions about appropriate expenditures of presidential time and energy, or growing demands for a presidential presence. Such involvement, of course, also likely includes consideration of an individual chief’s skills, time, and inclination. Perhaps most critical is the receptivity of those outside the White House to a COS acting as a stand-in for a president. Chiefs of staff are more likely to be viewed as appropriate proxies if they are perceived to be close, trusted presidential advisors who accurately convey presidential priorities and values.

III. Personal Styles and Activities

Presidents and chiefs of staff come from varying backgrounds and display a diversity of personal strengths, weaknesses, and operating styles. They also encounter widely differing circumstances in the White House. Such factors shape the opportunities and constraints confronting an administration and may well influence the effectiveness of the COS and White House operations.

A. Variety of Approaches and People

The more hands-on approach to many aspects of the presidency of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump required a different form of staff support than the more hands-off approach of Ronald Reagan. Likewise, the temperament, intellectual curiosity, analytic capability, and decision-making style of the president requires adjustments. Presidents such as Carter, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama that could consume and process voluminous amounts of data and information required a wholly different approach from their staff than presidents such as Reagan and Trump who were uninterested or unable to grapple with large quantities of information.

For example, the more wonkish Barack Obama received a President’s Daily Brief of 12-14 pages on an iPad, complete with hyperlinks and supporting materials. Donald Trump, notorious for his unwillingness to take deep dives on policy, preferred less frequent and shorter, one-to-three-page briefs composed of bullet points and visuals. Clearly, senior aides must adjust to the temperament, intellectual curiosity, analytic capability, and decision making processes of individual presidents. This takes both time to evolve and does not always happen. For instance, John Kelly’s structured approach fit poorly with the impulsive nature of Donald Trump, in a pairing that rarely worked well.

An essential task for a chief of staff is achieving the trust of the president. This cannot be taken for granted and needs to be earned, even when the president and chief have a prior working relationship. Meanwhile, the COS must forge constructive relationships with other prominent actors in the White House, including the vice president and the first lady, each of whom have their own staffs that must work closely with presidential aides. Leon Panetta, for example, scheduled weekly briefing sessions for first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. In the Reagan administration, Deputy COS Michael Deaver developed and sustained a strong bond with Nancy Reagan. When Deaver left and Donald Regan became chief, that trust vanished, with dire consequences for Regan.

Chief of staff James Baker has offered a key recommendation, one that is both evident but demanding: chiefs of staff need to be surrounded by the best possible people, as deputies and in other White House roles. If chiefs are too insecure to have capable people around, they are courting failure.[14]

B. “You Are Not the President”

Chiefs of staff have enormous power, but that power comes from the expectation that they speak for the president and reflect presidential views. Presidents are elected; chiefs of staff are not. When a chief of staff becomes too taken with their own importance (as happened with, for instance, COS Don Regan), they can forget that their responsibility is to enhance the standing and performance of the president. Similarly, media portrayals that focus on a chief of staff as the key player in the White House (e.g., John Kelly) can corrode trusting relationships with the president and others. Some suggest that former high ranking executives—governors, business executives, military officers—often struggle with this aspect of the job. Used to being principals themselves, becoming the chief of staff requires conscious attention and ongoing adjustments.

IV. CONCLUSION

 The roles and tasks of presidential chiefs of staff (and their associated office) are multiple, varied, subtle, and critical to presidential governance. Both those who have held the position and those who have interacted, observed and studied them tend to agree on several characteristics of successful chiefs of staff.

As an emphasis on management would lead one to anticipate, successful chiefs of staff act promptly to achieve control over the structuring, personnel and decision processes of the White House. In so doing, they need to balance the articulation and enforcement of clear rules and procedures with sensitivity to the possible appropriateness of more informal, fluid, often temporary arrangements (e.g., war rooms, ad hoc meetings) to cope with particular problems or opportunities. Constructive management also involves a willingness to delegate work to trustworthy and competent subordinates and to guide that work to assure its timeliness and consistency with presidential priorities.

Second, chiefs of staff need to protect presidents. That involves serving as a gatekeeper, helping assure that presidents have the time, energy, and counsel to focus on key decisions and responsibilities. It may also include compensating for presidential weaknesses, and in extreme cases, ignoring presidential orders or postponing responses.

Third, chiefs of staff (and their deputies) should strive to oversee policy decision processes in as fair and inclusive a manner as possible. Those knowledgeable about, affected by, and critical to, carrying out the decision should be represented and their views fairly presented, probed, and communicated.

Fourth, chiefs of staff must remember they are viewed as speaking for the president. Serving as a presidential proxy does not mean substituting one’s own priorities or values for those of the president.

Most critically, successful chiefs of staff work to adapt to a president’s approaches to handling information, advice, conflict, making decisions, and interacting with aides, government officials, and others. Just as presidents differ, optimal approaches to working with them differ as well.

[1] Joseph Biden, “Press Release – President-elect Joe Biden Names Ron Klain as White House Chief of Staff Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley,” November 11, 2020, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/346784

[2] Research conducted by the authors about the COS includes David B. Cohen and Karen M. Hult, “The Office of the Chief of Staff in the Trump White House, 2017-2019,” Presidential Studies Quarterly Vol.50, #2 (June 2020): Pp. 392-417; David B. Cohen, Karen M. Hult, & Charles E. Walcott, “White House Evolution and Institutionalization: The Office of Chief of Staff since Reagan.” Presidential Studies Quarterly Vol. 46, #1 (March 2016): 4-29; David B. Cohen, Karen M. Hult, and Charles E. Walcott, “The Chicago Clan: The Chiefs of Staff in the Obama White House,” Social Science Quarterly 93 (December 2012): 1101-26; David B. Cohen, “From the Fabulous Baker Boys to the Master of Disaster: The White House Chief of Staff in the Reagan and G.H.W. Bush Administrations,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 32 (September 2002): 463-83; David B. Cohen and George A. Krause, “Presidents, Chiefs of Staff, and the Structure of White House Organization: Survey Evidence From the Reagan and Bush Administrations” Presidential Studies Quarterly 30 (September 2000): 421-42; David B. Cohen and Charles E. Walcott, “The Office of Chief of Staff,” The White House Transition Project, 2021, Report 2021-20, available at: https://www.whitehousetransitionproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/WHTP2021-20-Chief-of-Staff.pdf  (accessed December 23, 2020); David B. Cohen, “George Bush’s Vicar of the West Wing: John Sununu as White House Chief of Staff,” Congress & The Presidency 24 (Spring 1997): 37-59; David B. Cohen, Chris J. Dolan, and Jerel A. Rosati, “A Place at the Table: The Emerging Foreign Policy Roles of the White House Chief of Staff,” Congress & the Presidency 29 (Autumn 2002): 119-49; David B. Cohen, Justin S. Vaughn, and José D. Villalobos, “Manager-in-Chief: Applying Public Management Theory to Explain White House Chief of Staff Performance.” Political Research Quarterly.65 (December 2012):.841-54; José D. Villalobos, Justin S. Vaughn, and David B. Cohen, “Public Management in Political Institutions: Explaining Perceptions of Chief of Staff Influence in the White House,” Public Administration 92 (September 2014): 744-760

[3] This article is an updated version of previously published research by the authors and is part of a larger ongoing research project; see, David B. Cohen, Karen M. Hult, & Charles E. Walcott, “White House Evolution and Institutionalization: The Office of Chief of Staff since Reagan.” Presidential Studies Quarterly Vol. 46, #1 (March 2016): 4-29; David B. Cohen, Karen M. Hult, and Charles E. Walcott, “The Chicago Clan: The Chiefs of Staff in the Obama White House,” Social Science Quarterly 93 (December 2012): 1101-26.

[4] Cf. Charles E. Walcott and Karen M. Hult, “White House Structure and Decision Making: Elaborating the Standard Model,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 35 (June 2005): 303-18.

[5] Lloyd Grove, “Obama’s Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Scandals He Faces,” Newsweek May 23, 2013. https://www.newsweek.com/2013/05/22/obamas-chief-staff-denis-mcdonough-and-scandals-he-faces-237394.html (accessed December 23, 2020)].

[6] Cheney’s comments appear in Samuel Kernell and Samuel L. Popkin, eds., Chief of Staff: Twenty-Five Years of Managing the Presidency (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 175-6.

[7] Haldeman, H.R. with Joseph DiMona, The Ends of Power (New York: Times Books, 1978), pp. 58-9.

[8] Richard M. Nixon, In the Arena: A Memoir of Victory, Defeat and Renewal (New York: Simon and Shuster, 1990), p.274.

[9] Interview with Michael Deaver, Miller Center, University of Virginia, September 12, 2002, tape 5 of 7, p.36 (http://millercenter.org­/president/reagan/oralhistory/michael-deaver).

[10] Terry Sullivan, ed., The Nerve Center: Lessons in Governing from the White House Chiefs of Staff (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2004), p.39.

[11] Bradley H. Patterson, Jr., The White House Staff: Inside the West Wing and Beyond (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), p. 353.

[12] John P. Burke, “The Neutral/Honest Broker Role in Foreign Policy Decision-Making: An Assessment,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 13 (June 2005): 231.

[13] Charles E. Walcott, Shirley Anne Warshaw, and Stephen J. Wayne, “The Office of Chief of Staff,” in The White House World: Transitions, Organization, and Office Operations, Martha Joynt Kumar and Terry Sullivan, eds. (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2003), p.133.

[14] White House Transition Project Interview with James A. Baker, III by Martha Kumar and Terry Sullivan, July 7, 1999.