Sunday, August 16, 2009

An Old Argument, Settled

Today's Times has a largely content-free profile of Rahm Emanuel. I'd certainly say it qualifies as a beat sweetener, but presumably it only counts if Rahm thinks so, and we don't get to know that. At any rate, it brings up a fairly important historical development: the end of the old dispute about whether a president should have a chief-of-staff.

Here's the story. When presidents began to have large staffs (really beginning with Truman), Democrats tried to emulate FDR's style by having a non-hierarchical White House structure. Eisenhower, the first Republican to serve with a large staff, imported his military structure, which entailed a chief of staff to run the White House. Ike took a lot of grief for supposedly delegating the power of the presidency to his staff, but Nixon and subsequent Republicans followed Ike's example.

Neither Kennedy nor Johnson had a chief of staff. Carter tried to go without one, but Hamilton Jordan became the de facto chief of staff. Clinton did begin his term with a chief of staff, but just barely; Mack McLarty was weak by design, with Clinton once again looking to the "spoke and wheels" FDR model. Like Carter, Clinton rapidly found this structure a disaster, and he upgraded the position by moving Leon Panetta over from OMB.

Which brings us to Obama, who is the first ever Democrat to begin his presidency with a proper chief of staff. Score one for Dwight Eisenhower, now the uncontested designer of the Presidential Branch.

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