The West Wing on Steroids


The West Wing gave viewers the feeling of seeing how an idealized White House works from the inside.  The initial concept, before President Bartlett, and later Santos, became major characters, was to concentrate on those who worked in the West Wing far more than the president. Not surprisingly, there are now many articles about how the Obama White House operates, even though it has only been in operation for a short time. All reports suggest that The West Wing was accurate in portraying modern presidencies as concentrating on the West Wing staff as opposed to the cabinet.

Cabinet officials played a relatively minor role on The West Wing and, while their importance in the real world is greater than portrayed, the West Wing is really where the action is. The Politico describes the Obama White House as being dominated by a West Wing on steroids.

Not even a week has passed since he was sworn in, but already Obama is moving to create perhaps the most powerful staff in modern history – a sort of West Wing on steroids that places no less than a half-dozen of his top initiatives into the hands of advisers outside the Cabinet.

For all the talk of his “Team of Rivals” pick in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama last week handed the two hottest hotspots in American foreign policy to presidential envoys – one to former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, and the other to a man who knows his way around Foggy Bottom better than Clinton does, Richard Holbrooke.

The State Department represents a special case as Hillary Clinton was largely placed there to prevent her from having a separate power base to cause trouble from the Senate and it was expected that foreign policy would be run from the White House to circumvent her. (It would have been hard to send Hillary to Gitmo when Obama is promising to close it.)

While the Secretary of State is a special case, a similar pattern of concentrating power in the White House is also seen in other areas. One reason is that many problems involve more than one Cabinet agency and it is helpful to have someone at the White House who can coordinate action involving different government agencies.

“Some of the Cabinet agencies were created before the most pressing issues of today,” this aide said. “To have people cut through a bureaucracy that doesn’t match the times we’re in is just more effective.”

What’s notable about Obama’s approach – and expands on the approaches taken by Bush and Bill Clinton – is the number of different areas where Obama is seeking to tap a central figure, outside the Cabinet structure, who will carry out his wishes.

Handling a prized portfolio of issues including national security, homeland security, the economy and energy are a handful of super-staffers who could just as easily have filled top Cabinet posts: National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan, Director of National Economic Council Larry Summers and likely Urban Policy director Adolfo Carrion.

Summers and Browner bring significant stature as Cabinet veterans in the Clinton administration, having served, respectively, as Treasury Secretary and EPA director. Carrion was considered for HUD secretary. Jones, a retired Marine four-star general and former head of NATO, has the credentials to be Defense Secretary.

Concentrating power in the West Wing allows Obama to choose the advisers he most trusts to handle various issues, along with bypassing the need for Senate approval in the case of possibly controversial choices. Proximity to the president also gives West Wing staffers greater influence. Tom Daschle is one exception who fills the role of both a member of the cabinet and health-reform czar:

Tom Daschle scored a ground floor office in the West Wing not by running Health and Human Services – but because of his role as Obama’s health-reform czar…

Daschle’s most important job for Obama isn’t running the massive agency, the Cabinet duties. It’s designing and implementing a health-care overhaul – and Daschle reportedly pushed to make sure the health reform job would part of his portfolio if he took the agency slot.

Location has been important for years, including in the Reagan administration:

Obama’s moves formalize what White House veterans have always known – the Cabinet is close to a president, his White House team closer and more influential.

“The only people who believe a Cabinet government exists are political scientists,” observed Ken Duberstein, a former Chief of Staff to President Reagan. “Location, location, location – proximity to the president is always what matters.”

Hillary Clinton had an office in the West Wing when her husband was president. The importance of the West Wing was also seen under George Bush:

Bush had powerful foreign and national security policy figures in his first-term Cabinet, but his domestic policy came entirely out of a White House in which figures such as Dick Cheney and Karl Rove were indisputably the Decider’s deciders. Cheney, especially, played a decisive role in setting economic and energy policy, was often the administration’s top Capitol Hill liaison and kept close watch on nominations and appointments.

“Every administration in recent years has worked to centralize power in the White House.” observed Bruce Reed, who served at the time as White House domestic policy chief under Clinton and now leads the Democratic Leadership Council. “In difficult times, with a host of front-burner issues, the president wants a lot of top people close to him.”

Cabinet agencies may only be a few blocks away, but their distance in practice is far more vast. It’s the White House staff that has the president’s ear, that briefs him each day and fields his questions and complaints. It’s here where decisions are most often made, not in the full-dress Cabinet sessions.

If the West Wing staff runs the government, then the chief of staff might be the second most powerful person in post-Cheney Washington (with the president now moving up to number one). The New York Times has a profile on Rahm Emanuel (who sounds as influential as Leo McGarry was on The West Wing):

Mr. Emanuel is arguably the second most powerful man in the country and, just a few days into his tenure, already one of the highest-profile chiefs of staff in recent memory. He starred in his own Mad magazine cartoon, won the “Your New Obama Hottie” contest on and has become something of a paparazzi icon around Washington.

In recent months, he has played a crucial role in the selection and courtship of nearly every cabinet member and key White House staff member.

Renowned as a fierce partisan, he has been an ardent ambassador to Republicans, including Mr. Obama’s defeated rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona. He has exerted influence on countless decisions; in meetings, administration officials say, Mr. Obama often allows him to speak first and last.

“You can see how he listens and reacts to Rahm,” said Ron Klain, the chief of staff to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “You can see that his opinion is being shaped.”

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  1. 1
    Terry Ott says:

    A possible theory about PART of the thinking here.  Cabinet posts are operational, in some cases overseeing masses of bureaucrats administering programs, etc.   They can also be somewhat “transforming” in that Cabinet heads can restructure, can streamline (if motivated to do so) , can weed out non-performers in the various agencies, cut out unnecessary functions and trim the fat.   BUT, anyone who has held a big managerial assignment like that in an entrenched organization knows that list of duties can be practically all-consuming if done conscientiously, especially for a relative “newcomer”.  Perhaps hard for the Cabinet incumbent at the same time to think outside the box and champion new ideas that take heavy input and analysis and study in their own right. 

    I took a mental note when Obama said he’d be going through the budget with a fine tooth comb looking for areas to save $$, to cut back on poorly functioning things, to get rid of unnecessary stuff, etc.   I would expect him to lean heavily on his Cabinet appointees to spearhead that kind of review.  In that context, the Cabinet’s “newness” is perhaps something of an asset — “fresh set of eyes” and all that.

    I hope he gives his Cabinet those kinds of marching orders.  And, off to the side are the forward-looking think tank types, and policy developers, and cross-functional coordinators.   That’s his intellectual swat team, and they may be horrible managers and not inclined toward process coordination and turf issue resolution; but it won’t matter if the Cabinet members are giving that arena THEIR full atttention. 

    One can hope. 

  2. 2
    Friar_Zero says:

    There are quite a few amusing parallels between Obamas campaing and the Santos campaign in the last two seasons of the west wing .

    It’s fun to go back and watch episodes of The West Wing and imagine the ideal white house.

  3. 3
    Ron Chusid says:

    I’ve commented on that many times, including here and here.

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