Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Decision Making in the Obama White House

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Decision Making in the Obama White House

Article excerpt

Centralization, Multiple Advocacy, and Honest Brokers

Presidents have dealt with the challenges of obtaining useful information and advice in a variety of ways. To ensure that they receive advice from a broad perspective rather than from the necessarily limited perspective of their Cabinet secretaries who tend to be advocates for their own departments, presidents have expanded their White House staffs and used them as their primary advisors. In order to ensure that they do not make hasty decisions and neglect important considerations, some presidents have insisted on an orderly process of deliberation that includes opposing points of view and different policy options before making important decisions. Others have appointed "honest brokers" to their staffs to ensure that no important perspective from their staffers or Cabinet secretaries will go unheard. President Barack Obama continued to centralize policy advice in the White House and insisted on multiple advocacy in policy deliberations. He did not, however, appoint honest brokers but chose to control the details of policy making himself.


Presidents since Eisenhower have steadily centralized control of policy and advice to the president in the White House staff. Presidents up through mid-twentieth century had relatively small White House staffs and saw the members of their Cabinets as principal advisors. Eisenhower epitomized what has been called Cabinet government, American style. That is, he used his Cabinet as a deliberative body and delegated leeway for his Cabinet secretaries to make policy within their own departmental jurisdictions. He summed up his vision of the role of his Cabinet secretaries in his instructions to them: "You are not supposed to represent your department, your home state, or anything else. You are my advisers. I want you to speak freely and, more than that, I would like to have you reflect and comment on what other members of the cabinet say" (Burke 2010, 361).

John Kennedy, after the disaster of the Bay of Pigs invasion, began to centralize policy advice in the White House when he instructed McGeorge Bundy to "set up a little state department" in the White House. President Richard M. Nixon, with his legendary mistrust of the career bureaucracies, institutionalized White House staff units, such as the National Security Council (NSC) and the Domestic Policy Council, as alternative policy development centers. He wanted his own analytic capability under his direct control so that he did not have to depend on the department or agencies of the broader executive branch for policy advice. As a consequence, Nixon increased significantly the size of the White House staff.

In reaction to Nixon's centralizing approach to governance, President Jimmy Carter attempted what he called Cabinet government by delegating discretion to his department secretaries. But after several years of frustration, he replaced five of his Cabinet secretaries and placed his confidence in the White House staff. President Ronald Reagan began with the intention of delegating to his Cabinet secretaries but soon realized that in order to control policy making, especially in foreign policy, he had to entrust it to his closest advisors.

Since Reagan, it has been generally accepted that presidents had to oppose the centrifugal tendencies of American government by depending primarily on their White House staffs at the expense of their Cabinet secretaries. The centralizing tendency of the presidency might seem on the surface to depend upon personal relationships and the preferences of presidents. Structural and systemic factors, however, drive the centralization of policy development into the White House. The perspectives of Cabinet secretaries are necessarily influenced by their policy perspectives and advocacy for their departments.

To counteract these centrifugal tendencies, presidents need advice that cuts across department boundaries. …

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