White House Chief of Staff Isn't the Position You Think It is


Throughout the beltway, the White House chief of staff is often considered, "the most powerful man in Washington.” But is this a political fantasy, or does the role and do the duties of the chief of staff actually warrant such high regard?.

The White House chief of staff is an assistant to the president of the United States. The chief of staff oversees the Executive Office of the President (EOP) of the United States. This office was created in 1939 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and is responsible for a variety of critical functions in support of the president’s work and agenda. The original title, assistant to the president, was changed in 1961 to chief of staff.

The duties of the White House chief of staff vary, yet traditionally encompass the following, such as: select and supervise key White House staff, control access to the Oval Office and the president, manage communications and information flow, and negotiate with Congress, executive branch agencies, and external political groups to implement the president’s agenda.

In fulfilling these duties, the chief of Staff oversees and coordinates the efforts of the following offices within the EOP and White House Office: the Council of Economic Advisers, National Security staff, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Legislative Affairs, and Office of Management and Administration, to name a few.

With such significant responsibilities to fulfill, the names of Ken Duberstein, John H. Sunumu, Samuel Skinner, James Baker, Mack McLarty, Leon Penetta, Erskine Bowles, John Podesta, Andrew Card, Josh Bolten, Rahm Emanuel, William M. Daily, and Jack Lew should be embedded in our collective national memory for their collective service as chief of staff, right?

Well actually, no. There are multiple reasons most Americans do not remember who was which president's chief of staff and perhaps number one is their average term in the role, over since 1969, is only two and a half years.

Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton went through four chiefs of staff each over their two terms as president. George H.W. Bush actually beating both for turn over as he had three chiefs of staff in four years!

The recent history of President Obama’s choice for chief of staff lends insight to the roles they have played in recent American history. Rahm Emanuel’s service is considered critical to the legislative process which resulted in the Affordable Health Care Act. William M. Dailey’s tenure developed substantial input from the business community to the White House while it was formulating policy to enhance economic recovery. Jack Lew’s budget experience contributed to the formulation of the presidents debt and deficit strategies.

As the executive branch of government has grown, many former responsibilities once held by the chief of staff are now performed by other assistants to the president. Yet if history nets any clue to whom President Obama will next name to fill the position, consider which agenda item has become his highest priority and, in making that assessment correctly, you may find the candidate most likely to fill the coming vacancy.

Today, the president's chief of staff has become the point man to move facilitate top agenda items, not simply administer and oversee the White House’s executive function. But as we await President Obama’s selection of his fourth chief of staff, replacing Jack Lew, is this position still correctly termed, “the most powerful man in Washington,”? Probably not.