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.
"Czar" Carol Browner will head up Obama's fight on global warming, where once his energy and environmental chiefs might have stepped in. 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.
Pulling power close is something all recent presidents have done – and on the campaign trail, Obama spoke out against George W. Bush’s attempt to expand his executive authority.
But when it comes to building his own team, Obama is taking the notion of a powerful White House staff to new heights, leaving little doubt who will set policy and guide the politics of the his newborn administration.
The structure could pose an early test for Obama — whether he can referee turf battles and policy skirmishes between presidential advisers and his Cabinet, which contains some formidable figures as well. Obama comes to the job lacking the executive experience of his two predecessors, governors-turned-presidents.
But Obama appears willing to take that chance. Aides say he believes the Cabinet structure is outdated because it doesn’t recognize that problems like global warming sprawl across several agencies, often requiring a sort of uber-Cabinet member – a czar – to confront them.
That helps explain the selection of Browner as an "energy-environment" czar, said one Obama aide.
"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.
The structure also allowed Obama to bypass the Senate confirmation process on two nominees who would have proven controversial, by merely picking them for White House jobs instead.
Summers was under fire from women’s groups for remarks made as Harvard president – but even as economic adviser, he’s overshadowing Treasury Secretary pick Tim Geithner as Obama’s economic spokesman.
Brennan was thoughtto be Obama’s No. 1 choice to head the CIA, but anti-torture advocates effectively scuttled his expected nomination by crying foul over Brennan’s work in formulating Bush administration interrogation policy.
And then there is Daschle – whose role illustrates the true power of the “czar” in Obama’s set-up. In many ways, 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.
This is not to say that other Cabinet members will be shut out of the decision-making process.
Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, is a longtime Friend of Barack who no doubt will get his calls returned. Robert Gates at the Pentagon served Bush as well and knows the ropes. And given her stature and relationships across the world, Clinton will surely command respect as Secretary of State – even as Mitchell was named as Mideast envoy while Holbrooke will handle Afghanistan and Pakistan.
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.”
Many of these White House posts, especially the czar-like functions, are what the occupants make of them. And it’s difficult to see individuals with such gold-plated resumes not exerting considerable influence in their areas of responsibility.
That Obama would empower his White House is in keeping with the modern presidency, an institution that, even as the size of the federal government has grown, has consolidated within the West Wing and adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
Clinton’s closest adviser, his wife, operated out of both the residence and her own West Wing office. And after the drubbing Democrats took in 1994, it was Dick Morris who represented a constituency of one in the Oval Office, plotting the policies and politics of Clinton’s 1996 comeback with a White House guest pass.
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.
But skilled Cabinet members can find ways to get their voices heard. “In the Clinton years the economic team owed a lot of its strength to [Treasury Secretary] Robert Rubin not just being in Cabinet but coming to the morning meetings,” recalled one former White House official.
Stephen Hess, a staffer in the Eisenhower and Nixon White Houses and now a scholar of the presidency, said that the onus is on mst Cabinet members to prove themselves worthy of influence.
George Shultz, Hess recalled, started as something of an unknown Secretary of Labor under Nixon, which is “not an overworked job in any Republican administration.” Nixon even misspelled Shultz’s name in his introductory notes.
But as he spoke up at Cabinet meetings, it became clear the former University of Chicago business school dean was intelligent and politically astute, and he quickly moved up to budget chief, then Treasury Secretary before ultimately serving as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State.
“Such people figure out for themselves how to get a little more elbow room,” Hess observed.