President Obama will soon make what could be the most important appointment of his second term: his chief of staff.
His choice will not have to be confirmed by the Senate or testify on Capitol Hill, and is not given nearly as much attention as controversial or high-visibility nominations to the Cabinet or to critical agencies, as is clearly the case right now with Defense (Chuck Hagel) and the CIA (John Brennan) -- or even Jack Lew, the current chief of staff and Obama's nominee for Treasury secretary.
But given the fragmented nature of the federal government, the right chief of staff must effectively function as deputy president. This is so because chiefs of staff often (though not always) try to operate out of the glare of the media spotlight, and are often summarily described in the media as the West Wing "gatekeeper."
Watching what the White House chief of staff actually does is critical to an understanding of how the president leads. In the vast executive branch, only the chief of staff and the vice president have the same broad view of the total policy and political world as the president himself. But the chief of staff has a core operational role, while the vice president has, generally, had only a senior advisory one (with an occasional special project).
Here are key reasons why the chief of staff's role has such potential importance in the modern era.
- The vast majority of executive-branch decisions require the views of multiple federal departments and agencies. Sharp differences -- which are inevitable -- need to be resolved at the center, in the White House. These differences often reflect fundamental underlying debates: social equity vs. economic growth, international idealism vs. global realism.
- A president can have only five to 10 top priorities on which he makes virtually all decisions. He can set general direction for perhaps 25 secondary priorities. But on those 25 issues and on the vast array of other "sub-presidential" decisions, over which departments and agencies often fight like cats and dogs, the chief of staff must make the "presidential" call or oversee the White House office responsible for forging an unwieldy consensus, for instance the Office of Management and Budget or the National Security Council.