Obama's Chief of Staff Will Be the Most Important Appointment of His Term

For many practical purposes, it is the White House operations boss -- and not the vice president -- who serves as the nation's deputy president.

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Outgoing Chief of Staff Jack Lew with Obama in March 2012 (Larry Downing/Reuters)

President Obama will soon make what could be the most important appointment of his second term: his chief of staff.

His choice will not have to be confirmed by the Senate or testify on Capitol Hill, and is not given nearly as much attention as controversial or high-visibility nominations to the Cabinet or to critical agencies, as is clearly the case right now with Defense (Chuck Hagel) and the CIA (John Brennan) -- or even Jack Lew, the current chief of staff and Obama's nominee for Treasury secretary

But even though chiefs of staff often (though not always) try to operate out of the glare of the media spotlight -- and are often summarily described in the media as the West Wing "gatekeeper" -- given the fragmented nature of the federal government, the right chief of staff must effectively function as deputy president.

Watching what the White House chief of staff actually does is critical to an understanding of how the president leads. In the vast executive branch, only the chief of staff and the vice president have the same broad view of the total policy and political world as the president himself. But the chief of staff has a core operational role, while the vice president has, generally, had only a senior advisory one (with an occasional special project).

Here are key reasons why the chief of staff's role has such potential importance in the modern era.

  • The vast majority of executive-branch decisions require the views of multiple federal departments and agencies. Sharp differences -- which are inevitable -- need to be resolved at the center, in the White House. These differences often reflect fundamental underlying debates: social equity vs. economic growth, international idealism vs. global realism.
  • A president can have only five to 10 top priorities on which he makes virtually all decisions. He can set general direction for perhaps 25 secondary priorities. But on those 25 issues and on the vast array of other "sub-presidential" decisions, over which departments and agencies often fight like cats and dogs, the chief of staff must make the "presidential" call or oversee the White House office responsible for forging an unwieldy consensus, for instance the Office of Management and Budget or the National Security Council.
  • The lines between "foreign" and "domestic" issues are not sharply drawn today but overlap, requiring the president or the chief of staff to resolve disagreements among the highest-ranking officals in the government. To take a salient example, the U.S. posture toward China on any single issue obviously requires integration of economic, diplomatic, and military perspectives -- some requiring the president's detailed attention, but others coordinated or decided in the president's name by the chief of staff.
  • The essence of presidential leadership is joining policy (where the administration wants to go) and politics (how it shapes a consensus to get there). This involves reconciling the different views on policy and politics of all the major actors in the political system -- from the Congress to state and local governments to the great swarm of interest groups to the fragmented old and new media -- who have their own connections and influence with various parts of the executive branch. In an era of partisan rancor, a capacious view of national politics and how to make it serve policy is especially critical. The chief of staff must pull the skein of policy and political threads together into an overarching four-year strategy.
  • The chief staff person in the White House -- the chief of staff -- has to establish understandings on who will run decision processes, who will advise, and who will decide on the vast array of priorities short of the president himself. These "rules of the game," which every administration has to establish for itself, are not the stuff of sexy feature stories. But without them presidencies can fall all over themselves and ultimately implode.

In short, although department, agency, and executive-branch offices claim that they operate with "presidential perspective," they don't. They have their own bureaucratic views of that "perspective." Only the people who sit above these contending fiefdoms can coordinate them and, as necessary, decide. Historically, this has meant the president and the chief of staff.

Presented by

Ben W. Heineman Jr.

Ben Heineman Jr. is is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, in Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and at the Harvard Law School's Program on Corporate Governance. He is the author of High Performance With High Integrity.

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