Before a president begins thinking about who should be his White House chief of staff, he has to define both the job and the moment. There’s nothing magical about the chief of staff’s corner office in the West Wing. How any individuals perform in the job depends, first, on the power the president gives them to execute their responsibilities, and second, on their expertise facing whatever’s in front of the White House in that moment. So how should that inform President Donald Trump as John Kelly takes his leave?
Consider the first issue. Had they been given unlimited time and bandwidth, neither of the presidents I worked for would have even hired a chief of staff. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama would have wanted to take every meeting, hear every perspective, mull every decision, game out every scenario, and address every challenge. They both loved the job of president—and arrived in the Oval Office every morning excited to see what they could accomplish.
But both also recognized that they simply couldn’t do it all. No president can. To get anything completed, and certainly to get the most important things done, they needed to discipline their own time and attention. They needed a gatekeeper. They needed someone to play traffic cop inside the bureaucracy. Without someone wielding the organizational tools that keep the executive branch moving apace, an administration can devolve into chaos. And so, however begrudgingly, both Clinton and Obama accepted that the limitations their chiefs of staff would impose on them and the rest of their administration would help them achieve their goals.