President Donald Trump’s friends have reportedly urged him to dispense with the idea of a traditional White House chief of staff or a White House communications director.
Let’s take these in reverse order of importance.
The White House communications staff — the entire messaging operation — has been a classic example of overkill for a long time. I doubt that recent presidents have been actively harmed by their speechwriters, press secretaries, and communications strategists. But it’s very likely that most of what they do has only very marginal positive effects. It’s not a bad idea to have someone coordinate all these folks. Why not? And yet message discipline is almost certainly vastly overrated, especially in an administration where the president is accustomed to sending his own messages regardless of what’s happening in the rest of the White House. Most people in politics vastly overestimate the extent to which most citizens pay attention to the day-to-day news cycles.
Big events matter. Spin really doesn’t all that much. We know this because individual presidents, with no changes at all in their communications shops, have had their approval ratings soar one year and plummet the next.
On the other hand, how the White House is run is extremely important for all presidents, and probably more important for Trump than most. The historical examples are very clear: Bill Clinton’s White House improved dramatically when weak, inexperienced chief-of-staff Mack McLarty was replaced by strong, experienced chief of staff Leon Panetta; Ronald Reagan went from a political genius to a feeble-minded disaster to a political genius again as he moved from James Baker to Donald Regan to Howard Baker.
Trump’s friends are talking up the spoke-and-wheels model of a White House without a strong chief of staff, in which a president can assign various tasks to a bunch of equals on his staff. But if one thing’s clear to those studying the White House over the last fifty (or more) years, it’s that the spoke-and-wheels model just doesn’t work. (It did work for Franklin Roosevelt, but that’s when the White House staff consisted of a handful of aides, not hundreds of people.)
The Regan example shows that there are dangers in an overly strong chief-of-staff, just as there are from a very weak one. Presidenting is hard! A staff structure that limits the ability of a president to hear multiple sources of information is usually a very bad thing … unless the sources of information the president is being shielded from are fictional.
Trump is being counseled that without Chief of Staff John Kelly or a similar replacement, “he would exert more control over which policies are prioritized, including his beloved border wall,” CNN reported. But that seems unlikely. Trump isn’t being stymied by his chief of staff; he doesn’t get his way because presidents aren’t dictators, and because Trump has proved so far to be particularly inept at using presidential assets to increase his influence. After all, to take the example of the border wall, it certainly appears that Kelly’s instincts are aligned with Trump’s preferences on immigration. It’s just that Kelly is presumably the one giving Trump the bad news that he doesn’t have the authority to order a border wall (much less paid for by Mexico) on his own, and that Congress, including many Republicans, hasn’t been very interested in the project.
In other words, eliminating Kelly and his position would be shooting the messenger. That’s not going to get Trump the message he wants to hear — and it’s likely to just increase the chaos swirling around the Oval Office.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.