Working in the West Wing: Senior Staff

Working in the West Wing: Senior Staff

I promised I would write about what it’s like to work in the West Wing of the White House. After more than six years of working there, the process details seem less than fascinating to me, but conversations with friends suggest that even routine process explanations might be interesting to some readers.

I should qualify this by acknowledging that each White House is different, reflecting both the character and the management style of the particular President. I was tremendously privileged to work for one President (George W. Bush) under two Chiefs of Staff (Andy Card and Joshua Bolten), from August of 2002 through January of 2009. I do not argue that the Obama White House should do things the way that we did, or that our way was better. I am merely describing how we did it for those who might care.  So for all you CSPAN junkies and West Wing watchers, here is the first in a series of posts about some process mechanics of working in the West Wing of the (Bush 43) White House.

Commissioned Officers

White House staff can be divided into two groups: commissioned officers, and everyone else. As a technical matter, a commissioned officer works for the President, and everyone else in the White House works for a commissioned officer. There are three levels of commissioned officers. Starting with the most senior, they are:

  1. Assistant to the President (AP)
  2. Deputy Assistant to the President (DAP), aka “Deputies”
  3. Special Assistant to the President (SAP), aka “Specials” or “SAPs”

We had about 20 AP’s at any given time, with a little fluctuation. Here are some examples:

  • Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten
  • Assistant to the President and Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove
  • Assistant to the President and Counselor to the President Ed Gillespie
  • Assistant to the President and Press Secretary Dana Perino
  • Assistant to the President and Counsel to the President Fred Fielding
  • Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs Dan Meyer
  • Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director, National Economic Council Keith Hennessey

Each of us was an assistant to the President. As a formal matter, he was our boss, and we 20 or so AP’s were his direct reports.Note that not all AP’s are equal. As a formal matter there’s a Chief of Staff who is senior to all other staff, and we had two Deputy Chiefs of Staff as well. In a few cases, there was an AP reporting to an AP — at the National Security Council, the #1 and #2 people both had AP rank. And as an informal matter, some AP’s have more practical impact than others, as you might expect in any organization.

Each AP runs part of the White House staff, and has commissioned officers and non-commissioned staff reporting to him or her. The National Economic Council (NEC) had 1.5 deputies (I’ll explain the .5 another time) and 4-6 Specials. As an example, in 2006 we had at the NEC:

  • AP for Economic Policy and Director, NEC Al Hubbard
  • DAP for Economic Policy and Deputy Director, NEC Keith Hennessey
  • SAP for Economic Policy Chuck Blahous (Social Security)
  • SAP for Economic Policy Julie Goon (Health)
  • SAP for Economic Policy Bryan Corbett (Domestic Finance)
  • SAP for Economic Policy Jason Thomas (Tax & Budget)
  • SAP for Economic Policy Hunter Moorhead (Agriculture)

We also had substantive experts on other issues (e.g., Technology and Telecommunications) who were not commissioned officers. And we had 8-12 noncommissioned staff, split about evenly between policy aides and support staff.

The Deputies and Specials also technically report to the President, and they get their commissions from the President (“Special Assistant to the President“). They report to him through an AP, however. As an example, every item on the President’s schedule had a “project officer” who was an AP that was formally responsible for that segment of the President’s day. As a practical matter, the Deputies and Specials did much of the spade work to make that time segment successful, with the AP overseeing the process and working on strategic issues.

I spent most of my White House time (5 1/2 years) as the NEC Deputy, and a bit over a year (2008) as the NEC AP. I used to joke that “Assistants make the key strategic recommendations to the President and decisions, Specials are the experts, and Deputies make everything happen.” White House meetings would often segment by level. In our economic policy development process, we would often have a series of policy meetings at three levels:

  • In 2007, SAP for Economic Policy Julie Goon (Health) would chair a Policy Coordinating Committtee (PCC) meeting (or three) of White House SAPs and Assistant Secretaries from Cabinet Agencies. Julie’s meetings would tee issues up for …
  • … a Deputies meeting that I would chair (when I was the NEC Deputy), with White House Deputies and more senior Agency staff (like Deputy Secretaries) attending (as well as Julie). My deputies meeting would tee issues up for …
  • … a Principals meeting that the NEC AP would chair (in this example, Al Hubbard), with White House AP’s and Cabinet Secretaries (e.g., Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt and Budget Director Jim Nussle) attending. Julie and I would also attend, since it was an NEC meeting. The Principals meeting would tee issues up for …
  • … a Policy Time meeting with the President in the Oval Office or the Roosevelt Room, generally attended by the same people who attended the Principals meeting.

Andy Card always used to say that White House staff work “at the pleasure of the President, and for the time being.” This apparently repetitive statement was intended to emphasize how ephemeral our employment status was, in contrast to, for instance, a career civil servant with all sorts of legal protections. White House staff, and in particular commissioned officers, have no formal job security. And the hours are brutal.

At the same time, there are a few perks that come with being a commissioned officer:

  • You get a nice commission, signed by the President and the Secretary of State. Most staff would hang their commision on their office wall. Those with multiple commissions (often from prior Administrations) would generally hang all of them.
  • White House Mess sit-down privileges are for commissioned officers and Cabinet-rank officials.
  • The in-town transportation service, run by top-notch Army personnel, is available only for commissioned staff.
  • Technically, you get the title “The Honorable John Doe.” I don’t know anyone who actually used this, but some friends and relatives think it’s cool.

As a legal and organizational matter, the White House is a subset of the Executive Office of the President (EOP). The Executive Office of the President also includes some organizations that are not part of the White House, but are close to the President in a physical and practical way. So the grouping of about 25 “White House Senior Staff” includes:

  • All 20-ish Assistants to the President
  • The Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (Eddie Lazear in 2008)
  • The Director of the Office of Management and Budget (Jim Nussle in 2008)
  • The Chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality (Jim Connaughton for eight years!)
  • The Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (Jack Marburger for eight years)

There are some minor differences between the 20 AP’s and the other four, but they are truly minor. As a practical matter, this group of about two dozen comprises the White House senior staff that report to and directly assist the President on a daily basis.

I found it interesting how few people understand this most basic tiered structure of the senior White House staff. Then again, I worked on Capitol Hill for more than seven years, and had no idea about this structure until I moved into the White House. What you should remember is that when you see a (current or former) White House staffer on TV or in the press, look carefully at their title. If it says “Assistant to the President for ______,” then you know they are (or were) White House “senior staff,” with a tremendous amount of influence. If you see “Deputy Assistant to the President,” you’ve stepped down one tier, and “Special Assistant to the President,” you have stepped down two tiers. Don’t get me wrong — Deputies and SAPs can be tremendously powerful and influential. But we alumni are always keeping track of “Who’s the ________ Deputy” or “Who got the ________ SAP job” in the Obama White House, and we have these tiers in mind as we observe and analyze the Obama White House decision-making structure.

(photo credit: Tom Lohdan)

15 responses

  1. Fascinating! Please continue.
    I know it can seem so very non-special, what you describe is something very very few of us can even imagine, and our imaginations are probably wrong.
    And please do not leave out the details. Not to be crass, but even using the restroom in the White House has got to be something remarkable if for no other reason than the significance.
    I would love to hear of a common workday, minute-by-minute.
    Thank you very much!

  2. KBH: I enjoyed the description of the AP’s, DAP’s and SAP’s that work in the WHO and who presumably make the job of POTUS better. Thanks for the post.

    It got me to thinking though. Who, exactly, makes policy? There is no way POTUS can be personally ‘expert’ in every area. It seems equally true that if the policy choices and subsequent outcomes are all pre-defined by staff then isn’t POTUS simply choosing from the choices provided by staff? And if that is so, then isn’t polcy actually being crafted by staff?

    Thanks again for the post.

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  6. Keith, what do you make of this rather notable SAP:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/business/01deese.html

    Thanks to your writeup, I have even greater concern about the level of thought going into the GM reorg. If as you say, SAPs are used to provide subject matter expertise, this would seem to hint at a rather awry policy process in the current White House.

  7. Yeah, I thought this was all fascinating stuff too when I first saw it in action. Then it becomes part of the background. But whenever I talk about it in class, it is always one of my students’ favorite lectures.

  8. Hey Keith,

    We worked together on the Entitlement Commission long ago. Great to see you sharing your valuable experience at the White House with readers.

    This is a fantastic description and would be of interest to all Americans. I’m going direct several hundred of my connections to this post. It is outstanding.

    Best,

    Scott

  9. Yes this was interesting and informative. Thank you. Many voters would benefit from understanding who these people are, since so often the minor officials of one administration are the senior officials of the next one from their Party.

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  11. Great question. It’ll take me a little time, but I will eventually write about the policy development process that we used.

    Short version: As a general matter, staff develop the options, the President chooses. If the staff are good, they don’t take options off the table, even if they don’t like them, so that the President has the widest possible range of options in front of him. Also, good staff know the general inclinations of their boss when they’re designing policy.

  12. Thanks for the response. I can appreciate the “If the staff are good …” point. Fair enough. The last line is just a bit troublesome as it suggests staff gives POTUS what they think he wants. But I acknowledge this was the short version.

    I look forward to the full on post re: policy development process. Much thanks for the info.

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