Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

White House Structure and Decision Making: Elaborating the Standard Model

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

White House Structure and Decision Making: Elaborating the Standard Model

Article excerpt

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 and 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 and Walcott 2004). Often characterized, especially in its early incarnation, as dedicated to hierarchy and top-down control, Eisenhower's creation perhaps is better understood as a more general method of organizing decision making (see, e.g., Walcott and Hult 1995; Henderson 1988; Burke et al. 1989). Specifically, it seeks to routinize the practice of multiple advocacy (George 1980), assuring that presidential decisions will be made in the light of full information concerning available options and the preferences of relevant actors.

Here, we begin with an account of the emergence of the standard model out of the partisan debate over staff structuring that lasted at least until the late 1970s. We argue next that the standard model addresses the obvious need of the contemporary White House for orderly decision-making processes. Then, we look at several analytical elements that the model, as usually discussed, does not fully address, seeking to show how it may be fruitfully elaborated.

Evolution of 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 and 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) 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) Decision processes often had an improvised quality, with participation somewhat dependent upon availability and chance. 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.

Thus, when Dwight Eisenhower introduced more hierarchy and procedures--with a chief of staff, a staff secretariat, a formalized process for "staffing" decision memos to his aides, 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 et al. 1989; Walcott and 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 and processes than in the Eisenhower White House and, perhaps most importantly, no chief of staff. …

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