Thursday, January 8, 2009

Organizing an Administration

Every time we get a new President, the Press rediscovers for us the inevitable tension between the White House Staff, the Cabinet Secretaries, and the leviathan bureaucracies they oversee. How to organize an Administration is a tough question. The models aren't many--you put the stars and studs in the White House Staff and run things from there. Or you put the stars and studs out in the Departments and the White House Staff monitors, reports and advises.

The problem with the strong White House Staff model is that it tends to insulate the President from a broad range of views, and it engenders tension within the often very independent cabinet departments. The White House can dream up all it wants, but it has to execute through the departments--and as anyone who has served in a bureaucracy knows, they will protect their own interests and stonewall policies they don't wish to see implemented. The problem with the strong cabinet officer, execute through the cabinet model is that it never lasts very long. Presidents who try to govern this way seem invariably over time to undercut the power and independence of the cabinet officials they choose, resulting in accumulation of power in ---the White House.

PEBO seems to be starting out with the strong White House model. While his Cabinet choices are not in any way to be considered wilting violets, a few White House choices tip his hand to a desire to run things from 1600 Pennsylvania. Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates are tough, independent power centers--but the choice of a former four star Marine (Jim Jones) as National Security Adviser indicates a willingness on PEBO's part to be directive if necessary. Larry Summers (a former Treasury Secretary) will effectively run fiscal and monetary policy from the White House (without having to suffer through a confirmation hearing that would raise his comments about women in academia again). Tom Daschle's "super secretary" role (Secretary of HHS AND White House health care czar) will be an interesting one to watch.

All in all, I favor the strong White House model. For good or bad, the people elected the President--not the cabinet secretaries. His agenda is the one that is to be carried out, and a bunch of free agents at the cabinet table don't accomplish that goal. It'll be great fun to watch PEBO's folks have at it with each other, as power is a zero sum in DC and folks tend to guard it jealously.

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