Hail to the Chiefs

Article excerpt

Byline: Daniel Stone

The presidency has grown, and grown and grown, into the most powerful, most impossible job in the world.

In 1936 Franklin Roosevelt felt overwhelmed. The New Deal had begun to spawn dozens of new agencies, and Roosevelt, fearful of the fragmentation of the executive branch, asked for help. The Brownlow Committee, an independent panel tasked with finding a new model of White House management, proposed offering the president some personal staff. "They would remain in the background, issue no orders, make no decisions, emit no public statements," the committee explained in a report responding to public skepticism about growing the size of government. Over the next two years, Roosevelt recruited six trusted aides.

Nowadays, six aides is roughly the number Barack Obama has to handle incoming mail--a small fraction of the 469 employees who work in the White House Office and councils for domestic and economic policy, the core staff of the presidency. Other officials include an ethics adviser, a special assistant for "mobility and opportunity policy," a director of African-American media, and a special assistant for financial markets, to name just a few. Days in the West Wing are a constant, head-spinning oscillation between dozens of domestic, foreign-policy, and political eruptions and concerns.

On the spring day that Obama signed his health-care-reform law, for instance, he also had an economic briefing on unemployment, discussions about financial reform, a meeting at the Department of the Interior, a quick lunch, a meeting with senior advisers and then with Senate leaders on ratification of a new nuclear-nonproliferation treaty with Russia, and an Oval Office summit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on devising a model for Middle East peace. On cable TV, meanwhile, pundits offered nonstop analysis of the holes in the new reform package, while Sarah Palin renewed accusations of Obama's "government takeover" of health care. A new poll showed that, for the first time, more of the country disapproved than approved of his job performance. In an interview with 60 Minutes that week, the president joked, "If you had said to us a year ago that the least of my problems would be Iraq...I don't think anybody would have believed it." Then he laughed. Steve Kroft, the interviewer, asked if he was "punch-drunk."

More often, Obama projects a demeanor of unruffled cool: he can handle the pressures and demands of the job just fine (how could he suggest otherwise?), and he didn't run for office "to pass on our problems to the next president or the next generation." But the issue is not Obama, it's the office. Aides to George W. Bush make similar complaints about the demands on the executive. "It was a much different place than even during the Bush Sr. administration," says Joe Hagin, Bush 43's deputy chief of staff, who also worked for Reagan and Bush 41. "There was much less time [under the second Bush] to catch your breath during the day." He recalls the constant juggling of issues--from the wars to Katrina--often all at the same time. "There's only so much bandwidth in the organization," he says.

Can any single person fully meet the demands of the 21st-century presidency? Obama has looked to many models of leadership, including FDR and Abraham Lincoln, two transformative presidents who governed during times of upheaval. But what's lost in those historical comparisons is that both men ran slim bureaucracies rooted in relative simplicity. Neither had secretaries of education, transportation, health and human services, veterans' affairs, energy, or homeland security, nor czars for pollution or drug abuse, nor televisions in the West Wing constantly tuned to yammering pundits. They had bigger issues to grapple with, but far less managing to do. "Lincoln had time to think," says Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University. "That kind of downtime just doesn't exist anymore. …