Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

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

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

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

Article excerpt

Introduction: The Significance of the White House Chief of Staff

The Clinton presidency began with great hope and expectation. Political observers marveled at the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign machine as the war room concept of campaigning changed presidential campaigns that followed. (1) Succeeding the apex of the presidential campaign, 1993 and 1994 represented the nadir for the Clinton White House. The president and his staff had a destructive relationship with the media, and the administration made countless avoidable legislative and political blunders (e.g., the Zoe Baird nomination, the defeat of the economic stimulus package, the White House Travel Office firings, the LAX haircut fiasco). To make matters worse, the Clinton White House failed to pass a comprehensive health care package--its most important and high-profile campaign pledge of 1992--even though the Democratic Party controlled both houses of Congress. How could the Clinton team be so effective in campaigning in 1992 and so ineffective in governing the subsequent two years?

In 1994, President Clinton decided to alter significantly the composition and structure of the White House staff. (2) Oftentimes, a change in White House personnel and structure is an exercise in futility (e.g., the Nixon administration shake-up of 1973; the Carter administration shakeup of 1979; the Bush administration shake-up of 1992). However, this time it appeared to be different. Thomas "Mac" McLarty, President Clinton's boyhood friend and a Washington outsider, was replaced as chief of staff (COS) by Leon Panetta, the director of the Office of Management and Budget and a longtime Washington insider. Though it took Panetta a few months to reorganize the White House, by the fall of 1994 the operation of the Clinton administration was much improved (e.g., see Burke 2000; Pfiffner 1996; Stephanopoulos 1999). The blunders stopped, and Bill Clinton was reelected in 1996--a result most doubted would be possible in the early days. (3)

Certainly, the change in chiefs of staff was not solely responsible for President Clinton's resurgence in 1995 and 1996; however, it undoubtedly was a factor. Other changes in chiefs of staff have affected presidential administrations in positive and negative ways. The Reagan years illustrate this point. James Baker, the well-connected Washington insider, was COS in a successful first Reagan administration. President Reagan was easily reelected in 1984, and Baker, tired of his White House job, swapped places with Treasury Secretary Donald Regan, the Wall Street guru and Washington maverick. Following a tumultuous two years capped by sagging approval ratings, the Iran-Contra scandal, and frequent public feuds between the First Lady and the COS, Regan resigned. (4) David Mervin (1990, 132) asserted that "the departure of [James] Baker and his colleagues and their replacement by Donald Regan is an important part of the explanation for some of the disasters of President Reagan's second term." Former Senate majority leader Howard Baker was coaxed out of retirement by Reagan and installed as COS. Less than two years later, President Reagan had the highest recorded approval rating (63 percent) of any exiting president. Howard Baker helped salvage the Reagan presidency and legacy (e.g., see Cannon 1988; Kirschten 1987, 1988).

The moral of the Clinton and Reagan presidencies is that chiefs of staff affect a presidential administration. Perhaps just as important, they have become a necessity in the modern White House, and their position is now a permanent part of the institutional landscape. Even presidents such as Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, who by design began their administrations without a COS, eventually realized that they had made a serious error (e.g., see Pfiffner 1996). With the enormous time demands placed on a modern president, as well as the increased responsibilities introduced into the White House following the New Deal, World War II, and the ensuing cold war, a COS is indispensable (Pfiffner 1996; Walcott, Warshaw, and Wayne 2001). …

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