White House structure and decision making: elaborating the standard model.

Author:Walcott, Charles E.

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. (4) Instead, the president was at the hub of the "spokes of the wheel," with a half-dozen or more roughly coequal staffers reporting directly to him. This tendency to transmit organizational philosophy along party lines through White House veterans and their academic apologists is a phenomenon we have dubbed "partisan learning" (Walcott and Hult 1995). It has never been wholly the case that the presidency lacks institutional memory. Rather, that memory until fairly recently has been selective, conditioned by experience, advisory networks, and partisan criticisms arising out of political competition, especially campaigns.

The Kennedy and Johnson White Houses drew mixed reviews, and LBJ in particular came to believe that his required some sort of organizational fix. As a creature of Congress, however, he was not as attuned to structural or managerial issues, and evidently did not focus on them long enough to accomplish significant change (Walcott and Hult 1995, ch. I 1). Moreover, by this time, a fair amount of institutionalization had already taken place, regardless of the Democratic commitment to flexibility and collegiality at the top of the staff. For instance, a congressional relations unit, established under Eisenhower, had become a standard White House feature, as had a White House personnel office, which dated to Truman. The White House counsel's office, despite functioning differently under the two parties, was always in evidence. Likewise, the press office, which traced to Hoover, had become a routine element of the White House. The national security assistant, a job basically conceived by Eisenhower, had been strengthened under JFK and LBJ. To these, Johnson added a specialized domestic policy staff and a staff of full-time speechwriters. Formal structuring, with specialization and internal hierarchy, had become a fact of White House life. Still, the Democrats eschewed a chief of staff and much of the apparatus of staff management and decision structuring that Ike had introduced.

Nixon and the Emergence of the Standard Model

When Richard Nixon assumed the presidency, he had every reason to look to his own partisan background, which of course included service in the Eisenhower White House as vice president. Eisenhower veterans such as Bryce Harlow served as conduits for partisan wisdom, but it was Nixon himself, in concert with chief of staff designate H. R. Haldeman, who took the basic GOP model and elaborated it into the first full-blown example of what would become the standard model. Nixon surrounded Haldeman with a relatively elaborate panoply of aides: a cabinet secretary, an appointments secretary (both jobs had become fixtures in the White House beginning with Eisenhower), a personal aide (responsible for "the body"), and several more junior assistants. More important, the new chief of staff instituted a sophisticated management apparatus, prominently featuring the staffing system for circulating policy and political ideas and obtaining comment from relevant administration members, and a "tickler" mechanism for following up on presidential directives and demanding that they be acted upon (Hult and Walcott 2004, ch. 2).

Nixon continued and in some cases elaborated the already developed features of the White House, such as the press office and the congressional liaison staff. Intensely concerned with public and media relations, and possessing a staff with abundant expertise in these areas, he added a communications office at the outset, followed by the first public liaison staff, formalizing the growing presidential practice of reaching out to supportive organized interests. Nor did Nixon neglect structuring for policy. He also created the Domestic Council, an elaboration of LBJ's domestic policy staff idea, designed to resemble structurally the National Security Council and staff. He experimented with similar innovations in the economic policy sphere. Here, it seems that structural elaboration was less a product of environmental demand than of Nixon's own concern with gaining maximum leverage over policy from the White House. The choice of particular structures apparently reflected the perceived success of the first "cabinet council plus staff," the NSC (Hult and Walcott 2004, ch. 7). (5)

One result of Nixon's initiative was an increase in staff size from approximately 350 to 400 under Johnson to as many as 560 during the final two years of Nixon's first term, as campaign functionaries (e.g., an advance staff) were added to the White House. In the aftermath of the election, though, reducing the size of the staff became a priority. (6)

The key to understanding the Nixon White House as well as the definition of the standard model, however, is less the size of the staff or the exact design of its component units. Instead, the central features relate to process. The staffing system, operated by a staff secretary who reported to the chief of staff, was, in effect, a method of surrogate discussion (cf. Hult and Tenpas 2003). Faced with a president who did not much like face-to-face discussion, Haldeman devised a way of putting questions of policy or political strategy--ranging from the largest matters to such minutiae as who should be invited to the White House--into memo form. These memos were systematically circulated among all members of the administration (and occasionally beyond) whose inputs were valued, by virtue of either the relevance of their jobs or respect for their judgment. These memos presented options, and invited each solicited individual to both note a preference and provide an explanation. Such paper passed through Haldeman's office (and, on important matters, through Haldeman himself) to the president. Haldeman's control of the staffing system, along with his supervision of the scheduling of the president's...

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