We normally think of bureaucracies as those dull gray buildings in Washington, D.C., full of career civil servants pursuing the interests of their bureaus and looking forward to retirement, certain that they cannot be fired or disciplined beforehand as long as they don’t rock the boat.
Unfortunately, bureaucracies exist in the White House too.
The problem at the White House is that the number of staff has exploded. Early presidents had a few personal assistants and dealt directly with agency heads as their effective staff, often collectively in cabinet meetings. Progressive Teddy Roosevelt, who redesigned a more assertive White House in 1902, only had a personal staff of 30. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt did not move the then-small Budget Office into the West Wing until the end of his second term.
The number of staffers has increased pretty much ever since, and today, under President Joe Biden, there are 15 major presidential bureaucracies within a White House complex comprised of 4,000 or so staffers (and additional interagency assignees), mostly careerists with no loyalty to the president. This is much more staff than any president could possibly deal with directly or, even, indirectly, through reports. And that disconnected bureaucratization has cost presidents dearly.
Every modern president has been severely undermined by his own West Wing bureaucracy.
George H.W. Bush was denied reelection because Office of Management and Budget staff members convinced him to break his campaign promise not to raise taxes and top White House staff recommended the appointment of a liberal Supreme Court justice, wrecking his credibility. Successor Bill Clinton had Monica Lewinsky at the White House Legislative Office. George W. Bush had his Security Council staff chief recommend his unpopular Iraq War against advice from the secretaries of defense and state. After saying no one would lose coverage under his health plan, Barack Obama had to apologize for such staff assurances, leading to large losses in the midterm election. Donald Trump was plagued with leaks from day one, resulting in impeachments and one term.
Why is it generally acknowledged by bipartisan experts that the only successful modern presidents were FDR, maybe Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan? While even Roosevelt had Harry Hopkins, Eisenhower had Sherman Adams, and Reagan had his Iran-Contra White House staff problems, these presidents were able to overcome them. And these scandals were small-scale compared to today’s hyperactive media and their hoard of executive mansion leakers.
What did the more successful presidents have in common? First, they were self-directed personally. In addition, they had relatively open communication with their cabinets and agencies, which were staffed by people they knew or with whom they had personal or political relationships. Therefore, these presidents were not fully dependent on large White House staff bureaucracies. This all resulted in broad electoral support from the public and multiple terms in office.
What about more modern presidents? There are many explanations, but this public administration analyst and administrator would argue that the greater media and Washington expert penetration into the White House itself is an especially important explanation for why more recent administrations have not been as successful. The hard fact is this: Every modern president has been severely undermined by his own West Wing bureaucracy.
The big three’s successful presidencies were cabinet governments as opposed to large, expert progressive staff governments. The central idea of progressive administration was captured in the Budget and Accounting Act of 1921, which was inspired by founding intellectual (and president) Woodrow Wilson. Interestingly, even he thought that the act went too far in cutting agencies from budget and policy processes. Thus, the act was signed by his naïve successor. The idea behind it was that career expertise should replace personal loyalty and practical politics.
Why was cabinet government the norm for the first U.S. century? Its fundamental logic is that the president is personally granted “the executive power” by the Constitution itself. He himself is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” by personally obtaining reports from “the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments,” who will actually perform the administrative “Duties of their respective Offices.” (READ MORE: Restoring Faith in America Requires Putting the Founders’ Republicanism First)
In order to manage this, George Washington himself developed the cabinet to deal with the offices below him. But there are over 400 agencies today, so several administrations have developed cabinet councils to institute what political scientists consider to be the president’s true administrative power, “the power to persuade” his agency heads.
Besides communication, a cabinet and subcabinet government allows for a much smaller White House policy staff than the progressive model, only needing politicos in the dozens or scores rather than careerists in the thousands. Assistants to the president can use the assistant secretaries and high political staff in the agencies as their own staff and regularly meet and communicate with them. Thus, they can reduce the number of West Wing staffers who have no loyalty to the president. However, the progressive model, in which a large expert White House staff has contact with the president — but also with the media and his opponents — has prevailed.
The general failure of modern presidencies strongly suggests that a president cannot succeed without personal loyalty to him and his program. He is supposed to be in charge. He, not a White House staff with no personal or serious political links to him, was elected. If the White House is large and has many careerists, this encourages second-guessing and the delay of agency proposals. And if the president does not limit the number who speak and leak in his name — but who often think they are superior to him intellectually or morally — a media and, perhaps, legal “scandal” certainly awaits him or her.
All administrations face the burdens of bureaucracy. Reagan supported making the extremely high retirement benefits available to federal employees more like those available to hardworking folks in the private sector. But when his chief administrator of the civil service presented plans to do so, it is perhaps understandable that those plans were routinely fought by staff careerists in the Executive Office, who, of course, received those benefits. But they were also opposed by cautious political superiors fearing controversy more than presidential wishes. While both attempted to bury proposals in the bowels of the White House bureaucracy, when the administrator threatened to appeal the retirement budget proposals to the president, the top staff always backed down because they knew where Reagan stood.
Opposition by West Wing staff nearly sunk one of the largest savings of the Reagan administration, as the new retirement system costs taxpayers half the expense of the old system at 20.2 versus 44.3 percent of federal payroll, saving multiple billions in unnecessary spending to this very day.
Reagan knew what he wanted, mostly helped by his agency politicos, and, as a result, is recognized as our most recent successful president.
Donald Devine is a senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, new from Encounter Books; America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution; and Political Management of the Bureaucracy: A Guide to Reform and Control. He served as President Ronald Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1.