Presidents, Chiefs of Staff, and White House Organizational Behavior: Survey Evidence from the Reagan and Bush Administrations

Article excerpt

There has been an extensive body of research that investigates the organizational aspects of the American presidency (Buchanan 1990; Burke 1992, 25; George 1980; Hart 1995; Henderson 1988; Hess 1988; Johnson 1974; Porter [1980] 1988; Thompson 1992; Walcott and Hult 1995; Warshaw 1997). This line of scholarship has examined how the White House operates as an organization. This body of research has yielded fruitful insights yet does not provide a behavioral framework to understand the workings of the White House as an organization. Providing a better understanding of this phenomenon is important for students of executive politics, given that the effectiveness of presidential administrations in the policy and administrative arenas is thought to be related to the White House's organizational structure (e.g., Burke 1992; George 1980; Hart 1995; Kessel 1983, 1984; Krause 2001; Pfiffner 1999). How the White House is organized in practice and how the president actually behaves determine the functional organizational structure.(1) This, in turn, has implications for determining whether or not a given administration is successful or not along the dimensions of policy formulation, policy implementation, and policy outcomes.

Our purpose is to augment this burgeoning line of research by setting forth a simple behavioral model of how presidential and chief of staff management styles shape the White House's organizational structure. We use original survey data gathered from former Executive Office of the President (EOP) staffers and cabinet members in both the Reagan and Bush administrations to assess our model empirically. We wish to determine whether the individuals operating in these institutional positions really matter in determining the working or behavioral structure of the American presidency or whether it is based on systemic relationship patterns. We now turn our attention to a critical position that has developed in the modern White House--that of the chief of staff.

Chiefs of Staff in the Modern White House

Chiefs of staff occupy a crucial and indispensable position in the modern White House. They are primus inter pares, or first among equals, on the White House staff. No one person, except the president himself, holds more potential power in an administration. To a great extent, the success or failure of a president lays in the hands of the chief of staff, as it is his or her task to oversee the functioning of the White House process, to advise the president on important matters of politics and policy, and to protect the president from forces that could destroy his administration (Kernell and Popkin 1986). The best chiefs' footprints on the White House landscape are unmistakable. Too often, they receive little acclaim for a job well-done and must be content to let the president receive the accolades better meant for the chief of staff. On the other hand, chiefs of staff who fail in their duties are often removed from their job and are conspicuous in the organizational and public relations mess they leave behind.

The foundations of the modern chief of staff can be seen as far back as 1789 when George Washington hired Tobias Lear to be his private secretary, a position that evolved over time into the complex and important position of chief of staff today (Cohen 2000, chap. 2). Presidents in the premodern age, because of the relatively smaller size of the White House staff and executive branch as a whole, were free to organize and manage their White House with little assistance. However, in today's modern political system, presidents are unable to do so and must delegate responsibility to a chief of staff for handling the management function of the White House (Hult 1993; Kernell and Popkin 1986; Pfiffner 1996). The chief of staff has become a permanent fixture of the presidential landscape (Pfiffner 1996; Neustadt 1999). Every president since Richard Nixon has chosen to have a chief of staff at one time or another (see Table 1 for a listing of chief of staff in the modern era). …


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