The news that Ronald Klain, White House Chief of Staff to President Joe Biden, is stepping down after two years in the job provides an occasion to examine the “second most powerful” position in the U.S. government.
Prior to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, few staff members served in the White House and arrangements were informal. In response to the Great Depression and World War II, however, the responsibilities of the federal government and specifically the presidency grew enormously.
The Brownlow Commission, a panel of administrative experts appointed by FDR in 1936, observed that “the President needs help” in managing the federal bureaucracy. Their recommendations led to the Reorganization Act of 1939, which established the Executive Office of the President (EOP).
Originally, the EOP contained the White House Office, where White House staff members reside, and the Office of Management and Budget. Over time, new offices – some created by Congress – were added, including the National Security Council and Council of Economic Advisors. As of 2015, the EOP employed 1,800 people, not counting hundreds more on loan from other parts of the government.
The need for someone to serve as a chief operating officer next to the president became clearer after 1945, when the U.S emerged as a global superpower engaged in Cold War competition with the Soviet Union.
Called the Assistant to the President during the presidency of Harry Truman, the formal position and title of White House Chief of Staff (WHCoS) was established in 1953 by President Dwight Eisenhower, who as a five-star general was accustomed to a hierarchical staff structure.
The WHCoS performs many roles, including gatekeeper, administrator, crisis manager, advisor, fixer, confidant, and SOB. Which roles are paramount and how much power the chief of staff wields depend on the president.
Following corporate or military models, Republican presidents tend to appoint strong chiefs, such as Sherman Adams for Eisenhower, H.R. Haldeman for Richard Nixon, and James Baker for Ronald Reagan. Democratic presidents, like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, began with collegial or collaborative staff arrangements before realizing that a centralized model was needed.
Experienced Washington hands often – but not always – perform better than outsider figures. Scholars credited Clinton’s second chief of staff Leon Panetta, a longtime member of Congress, with imposing discipline and focus on a dysfunctional White House. Klain, who was chief of staff to two Vice Presidents, Al Gore and Biden, received high marks for helping the president move a large legislative agenda through Congress, confirm federal judges, and mobilize support for Ukraine.
Washington outsiders sometimes get themselves and their bosses into trouble. Adams (former governor) and Haldeman (advertising executive) left the White House in disgrace. Donald Regan (Wall Street executive), Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff in his second term, ignored the shady activities of national security advisors, leading to the Iran-Contra scandal, and was ultimately fired by First Lady Nancy Reagan.
All chiefs of staff must value loyalty, but only the better ones can stand up to the president when needed. Haldeman reinforced the worst tendencies of Nixon’s character, helping to bring about Watergate. President Donald Trump went through several chiefs before arriving at Mark Meadows (admittedly a former Congressman), whose sycophantic behavior enabled the president’s nonresponse to the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
A distinctive feature of the job is that for its 70 years of existence, all 35 or so occupants, including Jeff Zlents, Biden’s announced successor to Klain, were and are white males.
Even fictional White House chiefs of staff fit the stereotype, including A.J. MacInerney (played by Martin Sheen) in the 1995 film The American Presidency, Russell Jackson (Zeljko Ivanek) in the TV series Madam Secretary (2014-19), and the incomparable Leo McGarry (John Spencer) in The West Wing (1999-2006).
There are several possible explanations for why the role is one of the last bastions of privilege in Washington.
One is the need for presidents to trust their advisors completely, which may make them more likely to rely on people like themselves – in all but one case, white males.
Gender stereotyping may be another reason. Whether in government or business, men are usually chosen for top executive or finance roles, while women often serve in human resources or communications positions.
Maybe the issue is the president’s role as commander-in-chief. Though there are notable exceptions, few women occupy top positions in the military. The breakthroughs have been on the diplomatic side, where Madeleine Albright and Hillary Clinton were the first women to serve as Secretary of State.
That may be why we see female chiefs of staff to governors, whose military responsibilities are limited. Governors Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf employed women as chiefs. Dana Fritz, a longtime aide to Josh Shapiro, is the new governor’s chief of staff.
One thing is almost certain. Whoever serves as WHCoS, which Baker once said was the “worst f*****g job in America,” will burn out. The top advisor to the president serves 18 months on the average – if he (and someday she) is lucky.
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