The Executive Office of the President

In 1936, a Committee on Administrative Management under the chairmanship of Louis Brownlow. reported the following year and asserted that 'strong executive leadership is essential to democratic government today. Our choice is not between power and no power, but between responsible and capable popular government and irresponsible bureaucracy'. A terse four word sentence set out their basic conclusion: 'The President needs help'

They then went on to recommend that the President be given 'a small number of executive assistants who would be his direct aides in dealing with the managerial agencies and administrative departments of the Government'. More controversially, and guaranteed to incur the wrath and opposition of those who would be adversely affected, the Committee recommended that 'the whole Executive Branch of the Government should be overhauled and the present 100 agencies reorganised under a few large departments'. It was another two years before Congress passed the Reorganisation Act which provided that the President should have the assistants that the committee had called for, but, while permitting him some authority to reorganise the executive branch, the Act denied him the power of widespread consolidation of agencies.


In September 1939, under the terms of the Act, Roosevelt issued an Executive Order (8248) which brought into being the White House Office and the Executive Office of the President. Six presidential assistants were appointed to the White House Office to be the President's personal advisers. More significantly, perhaps, the Bureau of the Budget was taken from the Department of the Treasury and put into the new Executive Office of the President. This meant that for the first time the President had a potent weapon in his struggle to establish his authority over the departments.

The White House Office, a part of the Executive Office of the President (EXOP), serves as the president's personal office and houses the staff responsible for facilitating the president's interactions with Congress, department and agency heads, the press, and the public. This increased workload placed significant demands on presidents, leading to the establishment of EXOP to help manage these demands. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, EXOP expanded to encompass approximately a dozen offices, with key entities such as the White House Office, the National Security Council, and the Office of Management and Budget. By 2009, the Executive Office of President Obama comprised 15 offices, a number that was reduced to 11 by the end of his first term. In total, EXOP employed over 2,000 staff members, with the most crucial personnel, including key presidential advisers, operating from the West Wing of the White House, where the Oval Office is situated. The White House Office specifically includes the president's most trusted and closest aides and advisers.

The White House Office is just one of the many offices within the Executive Office of the President. It comprises over 30 different offices, including the Office of Cabinet Affairs and the Office of Legislative Affairs. The White House chief of staff oversees the operations of this office, providing daily advice and administrative assistance to the president. Whether at the White House, traveling domestically, or abroad, these individuals are always close to the president. The White House Office has various responsibilities, serving as a connection between the White House and the federal bureaucracy. During the George W. Bush administration, the cabinet secretary, who was also a White House Office member, mentioned that any cabinet officer wishing to speak privately with the President would first need to consult with him or the chief of staff, Andrew Card. Additionally, those working in the White House Office facilitate communication between the White House and Congress. The Office of Legislative Affairs, a part of the White House Office, focuses solely on this task. The individual responsible for congressional liaison arrangements is crucial in organizing meetings between members of Congress and the president. Anyone involved in determining who meets the president in the Oval Office holds significant importance.

 Even telephone calls to the president are screened by the White House Office to decide who should and who should not be put through to the president. The same goes for paperwork. President Eisenhower was known to read only those documents that included the letters ‘OK. SA’ on them — indicating that his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, had ‘okayed’ them. Senior members of the White House Office are responsible for drawing up the president’s daily schedule, for the day-to-day running of the White House, and for personnel management. They ensure that decisions are arrived at in an orderly fashion — that all relevant options, pros, and cons have been presented to the president for him to make his decision. They deal with crisis management and act as ‘lightning conductors’, taking the blame when things go wrong. In order to fulfil these important functions, members of the White House Office are meant to act as ‘honest brokers’, not as policy-makers. They are meant not to be always in the media spotlight, but to have something of what the Brownlow Report called ‘a passion for anonymity’. If senior members of the White House Office are thought to be pursuing their own rather than the president’ s agenda, this can lead to trouble. 

The White House chief of staff 

The White House Office includes the president’s most trusted and closest aides and advisers. Although the White House Office is only one of the dozen or so offices that make up the Executive Office of the President, it is itself made up of over 30 different offices, such as the Office of Cabinet Affairs and the Office of Legislative Affairs. In charge of running the White House Office is the White House chief of staff. Their principal function is to provide advice and administrative support for the president daily. Whether in the White House, traveling within the United States or out of the country, these people are never far from the president.

The White House Office, a significant component of the Executive Office of the President, maintains the closest working relationship with the president. With over 400 employees in 2019, it encompasses various offices including the Office of the Chief of Staff, the Office of Legislative Affairs, the Office of Cabinet Affairs, the Office of Communications, and the Office of the National Security Adviser. Most of these offices are situated in the West Wing of the White House, considered the core of the presidency. Unlike cabinet positions, appointments within the White House Office are solely at the president's discretion, requiring no Senate confirmation. The White House chief of staff often determines access to the president, influencing the range of perspectives the president is exposed to.

 The role of the White House chief of staff is the most crucial job of all within the White House staff and the appointment of the chief of staff is probably the most important that a president makes in terms of the executive branch —Some, like Sherman Adams (Eisenhower), Don Regan (Reagan) and John Sununu (Bush), became too obtrusive and too powerful — almost a kind of ‘deputy president’. A joke which used to circulate during Republican Dwight Eisenhower’ s presidency imagined two Democrats talking to each other. ‘Wouldn’ t it be terrible,’ says one Democrat, ‘if Eisenhower died and Vice President Nixon became president.’ Replied the other Democrat, ‘Not as bad as if Chief of Staff Sherman Adams died and Eisenhower became president!’ But other chiefs of staff, such as Thomas ‘Mack’ McLarty (Clinton), were simply overwhelmed by the job because of their lack of Washington experience. The best model for chief of staff is someone who always seeks the president’ s best interests rather than his own, and who protects the president from political harm. President Ford’ s chief of staff, Dick Cheney, once remarked of his relationship with Ford: ‘He takes the credit ; I take the blame.’ Jack Watson, who served as chief of staff to President Carter, described his job as being like that of a ‘javelin catcher’ — protecting the president from incoming missiles that could hurt him. Watson continued: The chief of staff’ s role is to see that all the relevant people have a full and fair opportunity to present their views to the president. To act as an honest broker means that I view my role as a fulcrum rather than being a weight on one end. I must ensure that the president hears conflicting views, and not seek to make the judgement for him. In a May 1993 Washington Post article on the role of the White House chief of staff, Lloyd Grove stated: It is the hottest seat in town and its occupant is the orchestrator of presidential paper flow, the ‘honest broker’ of ideas and opinions, the fearsome disciplinarian of wayward staffers, the president’ s trusted adviser and sounding board, the White House’ s apologist and occasionally, when necessary, the president’ s fall guy. Those who have received high marks for their chief of staff role include Leon Panetta (Clinton: 1994 – 97), Andrew Card (George W. Bush: 2001 – 06) and Rahm Emanuel (Barack Obama 2009 – 10). 

While the role is one of the most significant it is also ill defined and tends to be short lived. Much will depend on their relationship with the president.

Trump's Chiefs of Staff

There was early criticism of President Trump’ s first chief of staff, Reince Priebus who came to the post having served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. Priebus tried to staff the White House with former aides from the Republican National Committee, his former role, and he tried to attend every meeting, sticking by the president’s side nonstop in an effort to maintain his power.Trump’s relationship with his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus,deteriorated quickly amid claims of a dysfunctional administration. Priebus resigned after little more than 6 months in the post and was replaced by former general John Kelly in July 2017.

John Kelly deployed a more military-style approach, initially restricting access to top meetings and the list of people who could reach Trump directly by phone. It, too, failed.  John Kelly in July 2017. Kelly attempted to impose order, restricting access to the president and attempting to bring discipline to the White House.

However, Kelly’s influence diminished amid arguments with senior staff and criticism from Trump. It was reported that Trump and his chief of staff were no longer on speaking terms when Kelly resigned in January 2019.

As acting chief of staff,  Mulvaney tried an approach, was the opposite of Kelly's, vowing to allow Trump to do as he pleased and speak to whomever he wanted while Mulvaney controlled the staff. That did not work, either. Kushner essentially became the shadow chief of staff in that power vacuum, and Mulvaney was ultimately excluded from a number of major personnel decisions and key moves including during impeachment.

Mark Meadows resigned from Congress on March 31, 2020, to become White House chief of staff. As chief of staff, he played an influential role in the Trump administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He questioned the efficacy of masks, contrary to public health expertise; pressured the Food and Drug Administration to adopt less strict guidelines for COVID-19 vaccine trials; and admonished the White House's own infectious disease experts for not "staying on message" with Trump's rhetoric. In October 2020, Meadows said it was futile to try "to control the pandemic", emphasizing instead a plan to contain it with vaccines and therapeutics. As the virus spread among White House staff in the fall of 2020, he sought to conceal the cases, including his own 

One of the principal reasons we are in this mess is because Trump has never had a chief of staff who will tell him hard truths."

 Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency"

Evert President make the system his own

Throughout each presidential term, advisors compete for proximity to the president to enhance their influence and personal standing. However, each administration possesses a distinct character. Obama's administration ran smoothly, fostering a shared sense of purpose among most staff members. Conversely, Trump's administration initially left numerous positions unfilled, with over 280 positions requiring Senate confirmation remaining vacant after more than 2 years in office. Trump's frequent dismissals of officials and high staff turnover quickly gave rise to chaos within the administration. The popular 2018 book "Fire and Fury" depicted the Trump White House as a battleground where aides vied for the president's approval while dreading the unpredictable nature of their leader. Advisors who disagreed with the president were reportedly terminated or pressured to resign, resulting in a staff that was inclined to wholeheartedly support the president's initiatives rather than challenge them when necessary.

Some presidents have appointed individuals known as 'policy czars' in the White House. These officials are tasked with overseeing specific policy areas, often aligning with the responsibilities of cabinet officers. For instance, Paul Volcker served as an economic czar during his tenure as chair of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board under Obama from 2009 to 2011, while Timothy Geithner fulfilled the role of overseeing the economy as the treasury secretary. Policy czars typically operate within the White House and may enjoy closer access to the president compared to cabinet officers. Obama faced criticism from Republicans for extensively employing policy czars, as these appointees did not undergo Senate confirmation and thus received less scrutiny than cabinet officers. Despite the controversy, the use of policy czars was not a novel concept. Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced them, and Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, also utilized various czars. Trump similarly appointed policy czars, such as Peter Navarro, who served as the trade czar and advocated for tariffs against China starting in 2016. In a unique approach, Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, assumed the role of a policy czar on a wide array of issues while serving as a senior adviser to the president. Kushner handled matters ranging from the border wall, healthcare, US innovation, Lebanon, criminal justice reform, to diplomacy with China and Mexico. In a notable decision, Kushner successfully persuaded Trump to relocate the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in 2017, despite objections from key officials like Rex Tillerson and James Mattis, as well as strong opposition from Palestinians and European allies. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Kushner held a distinct position at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, overseeing the federal response efforts.

The Office of Management and Budget The office within EXOP that reviews budget requests, legislative initiatives, and proposed rules and regulations from the executive departments and agencies. The Office of Management and Budget Richard Nixon created the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in 1970 when he revamped what was previously called the Bureau of the Budget. The OMB has three principal functions: first, to advise the president on the allocation of federal funds in the annual budget ; second, to oversee the spending of all federal departments and agencies ; third to act as a kind of clearing house for all legislative and regulatory initiatives coming from the executive branch. The last function means that all proposed legislation and regulations coming from the executive branch must go through the OMB so that they can be analysed both for their budgetary implications and for their compatibility with the president’ s overall policy programme.

The National Security Council The president’ s official forum for deliberating about national security and foreign policy. It is part of EXOP. The National Security Council The National Security Council (NSC) was established in 1947 to help the president coordinate foreign, security and defence policy. Headed by the national security adviser (NSA), the NSC began life as an in-house thinktank for the president. The NSC would coordinate information coming to the White House from the State Department, the Defense Department, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Joint Chiefs of Staff and American ambassadors around the world. It would liaise with the relevant congressional committees, too. Like the White House Staff, the NSC was designed to operate as an ‘honest broker’, a ‘facilitator’, presenting carefully argued options for presidential decision making. President Nixon changed the way the NSC worked. Distrustful of the State Department, which he saw as too liberal and establishment-orientated, Nixon decided to run foreign policy from the White House. He appointed Henry Kissinger as his national security adviser to act as a roving foreign policy-maker, largely cutting out the State Department’ s traditional role. But this enhanced and politicised role for the NSC caused grave problems for subsequent presidents. Subsequently, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama returned the NSC to its ‘honest broker’ role. For Bill Clinton, Sandy Berger played the role of behind-the-scenes coordinator. Writing in The New Republic in April 1998, Jacob Heilbrunn described Berger as ‘the chief coordinator and adviser to the President ; the glue that holds the foreign policy team together’. Table 4.7 lists the national security advisers from 2001 onwards. For George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice played an important but facilitating role during his first term. Bob Woodward (2003) said of Rice: She saw her job as twofold: first to coordinate what Defense, State, the CIA and other departments and agencies were doing by making sure the President’ s orders were carried out ; and second, to act as counsellor — to give her private assessment to the President, certainly when he asked, perhaps if he didn’ t. In other words she was the President’ s trouble-shooter. Jean Edward Smith (2016) tells of Rice defining her job as ‘Bush’ s enabler and enforcer, a translator of his instincts and intuition into policy’. But as Smith comments: ‘That was not what Bush needed, but it appears to have been what he wanted.’ 

 During the Obama first term, there was no doubt at all that the lead voices in foreign policy were those of the President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. With such a big name at the State Department, the NSC stayed in the background, performing its traditional coordinating role. During these first four years, Obama was served by two national security advisers — General James Jones followed by Tom Donilon, who had earlier served as Jones’ s deputy. Both men fitted the ‘honest broker’ style of working and both had the ‘passion for anonymity’ which is meant to characterise those who work in the Executive Office of the President. Bob Woodward (2010) reported Jones’ s views on his number two and his eventual successor: Jones praised [Donilon’ s] substantive and organizational skills, and told Donilon that he was indispensable to the President and the whole NSC staff. But Donilon had made three mistakes. First, he had never gone to Afghanistan or Iraq or really left his office for a serious field trip. Second, he frequently spoke with absolute declarations about places he’ d never been, leaders he’ d never met, or colleagues he worked with. Third, he had too little feel for the people who worked day and night on the NSC staff, their salaries, their maternity leaves, their promotions, their family troubles, all the things a manager of people has to be tuned into. In 2015, Donilon was replaced by the more politically minded Susan Rice. Rice

Hillary Clinton at the state department in 2013, but had to withdraw from consideration after she became embroiled in the Benghazi affair — when the US Ambassador to Libya was killed in an attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi. But the two jobs — secretary of state and national security adviser — are two very different roles, and those likely to perform well in one are unlikely to be able to perform well in the other. Rice, an African-American, came in for some criticism when she made a speech in Florida in May 2016 in which she said that the nation’ s national security workforce was ‘too white, too male and too Yale’ — the latter referring to the elite university in Connecticut — and seemed to suggest that this posed a national security threat to the nation. This is not the kind of political controversy that a White House honest broker should be entering, and certainly not in public. 

President Trump’ s first action regarding the NSC was to remove the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the director of national intelligence from permanent status. They would attend meetings only when summoned. In their place, Trump placed his chief strategist Steve Bannon as a permanent NSC member. This seemed to signal Trump’ s intention to use the NSC as a political — rather than a coordinating — forum. But this arrangement lasted less than three months as Bannon was removed from the NSC in early April. Trump also set a record for having the shortest-serving national security adviser when Michael Flynn resigned from the post after just 24 days. His resignation followed accusations that he had misled the Vice President over a phone call Flynn had made to the Russian ambassador in Washington during the closing days of the Obama administration.

 EXOP – cabinet rivalries Presidents must guard against the development of unhealthy rivalries and distrust between those who work in the EXOP, on the one hand, and the heads of the executive departments — the cabinet — on the other. Such rivalries and distrust can inflict serious wounds on a presidency, as presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter discovered. There is a danger that those who work in the White House may come to regard cabinet officers as distant and disloyal. Similarly, cabinet officers may come to regard those who work in the White House as too close and too loyal to the president. Physical distance Some of these feelings are born of natural circumstances. Cabinet officers are physically distant from the White House. The office of the secretary of state, for example, is on the seventh floor of the State Department building in Foggy Bottom — an area of Washington about seven blocks west of the White House, making it a good 10 minutes away from the Oval Office. The secretary of defense is even further away. The Pentagon — the department’ s headquarters — is over the other side of the Potomac river, 15 – 20 minutes away. In comparison, the national security adviser’ s office is a 30-second walk from the Oval Office. It is hardly surprising that the secretaries of state and defense seem — and feel — a bit distant. Those who work in the EXOP have the key advantage of proximity. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who served in the White House under President Nixon, commented: ‘Never underestimate the power of proximity.’

Divided loyalties It is understandable to some extent that cabinet officers sometimes appear disloyal. Although they are appointed by the president and serve only at his pleasure, they have other loyalties. They have a loyalty to Congress, whose votes decide their departmental budgets and whose committees can call them to account in person. They have a loyalty to their own departmental bureaucracy and to interest groups with which their department has close links. On the other hand, those who work in the EXOP have only one loyalty — to the president. They are All the President’ s Men — the title of a 1970s book (and a film starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) about the Nixon White House and the Watergate affair. In his recent book on the presidency of George W. Bush, Jean Edward Smith (2016) comments that ‘Bush relied on the White House staff rather than his cabinet’ and that this was particularly true in foreign policy. In 2001 he told Russian president Vladimir Putin, ‘Contact [Condoleezza] Rice if there is a problem’ — not Colin Powell or the State Department. 

The Trump administration has been a case study in divided loyalty, personal rivalry and intrigue, but the most unusual aspect of the Trump president is Trump's own attacks on parts of his own government. Although all president have at time criticised departments for lacking in efficiency or conducting policies which were contrary to the president's aims- (see going native) Trump took this to a new level. For example Trump promoted the idae that the FBI had bugged his campaign and he said repeatedly that he wasn’t convinced that Russia had attempted to interfere in the U.S. election in 2016. He said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s denial of any involvement, regularly calling the allegations a “hoax” and the resulting investigation a “witch hunt.” All his top intelligence officials, however, contradicted him—at a single conference, the 2017 Aspen Security Forum. Indeed, over the first two years of Trump’s presidency, not a single one of his senior national security officials publicly backed his claims on the subject. 

The Federal Bureaucracy

Some presidents, typically Democrats, work to expand the federal bureaucracy, believing in its positive impact on society. For instance, Franklin D. Roosevelt significantly grew the federal government during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Obama also boosted the number of federal employees by 8% during his presidency. On the other hand, Republican presidents often aim to reduce the federal government's size, citing concerns about wastefulness, inefficiency, and the centralization of power away from states. Trump vowed to 'drain the swamp' in Washington, DC, announcing plans in February 2018 to eliminate 22 government agencies. However, due to lack of congressional approval, these plans were shelved. In 2019, Mick Mulvaney, acting White House chief of staff, noted that relocating agencies would lead to mass resignations. For example, the relocation of the US Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service (ERS) from Washington, DC to Kansas City, Missouri resulted in a 78% employee turnover rate. Additionally, it came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic that the Trump administration had dissolved the pandemic response office established by Obama's National Security Council in 2018. Unlike typical Republicans, George W. Bush, despite promising to downsize the federal government during his 2000 campaign, increased federal employees by 13.8%. This growth was influenced by national security demands post-9/11, the 'war on terror', as well as increased spending on education, healthcare, and a federal economic stimulus following the 2008 financial crisis.