Staff: The Forgotten Metric of Presidential Success

While the pri­maries con­sume every­one with their end­less­ly cir­cu­lar debates about poli­cies and scan­dals, one aspect of a suc­cess­ful pres­i­den­tial admin­is­tra­tion gets no love. There are good rea­sons for this, rang­ing from a desire not to offend poten­tial future net­work­ers who can offer a job to sim­ple igno­rance about how nec­es­sary an effec­tive bureau­cra­cy is, but it is still glar­ing. The most impor­tant aspect of the elec­tion of a new pres­i­dent isn’t what a can­di­date’s ideas are — those are always going to be con­strained by Con­gress, the oth­er par­ty in pow­er, and prac­ti­cal­i­ty — but rather their staffing choic­es.

There is a pow­er­ful case to be made that Barack Oba­ma’s biggest fail­ure as a pres­i­dent is not in any deci­sion (the deci­sion to inter­vene in Libya), not any doc­trine (lead­ing from behind), any sweep­ing law (Oba­macare), or in any sort of naive effort (the reset with Rus­sia), but rather is in his staffing deci­sions. Espe­cial­ly on for­eign pol­i­cy issues, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma’s staff is where he failed.

Over the last sev­er­al years there has been a lot of hand wring­ing about the con­cen­tra­tion of deci­sion-mak­ing in the white house: the size of the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil has explod­ed, many high lev­el pol­i­cy­mak­ers at the depart­ments feel cut off, demot­ed to mere imple­menters instead of plan­ners or deciders. There are a num­ber of struc­tur­al rea­sons for this but it has also been a choice: put sim­ply, Oba­ma picked the wrong staff and relies on them too much.

Think of the diplo­mat­ic out­reach to Cuba. It is telling that Oba­ma’s sec­re­tary of state, John Ker­ry, did­n’t do the out­reach. It is even more telling that the assis­tant sec­re­tary of state for the west­ern hemi­sphere, Rober­ta Jacob­son, was­n’t involved, nor was the (act­ing) deputy assis­tant sec­re­tary for South Amer­i­ca and Cuba, Alex Lee. Rather, Oba­ma sent a per­son­al advis­er on Latin Amer­i­can issues to do the ini­tial out­reach, along with his de fac­to viceroy, Ben Rhodes (a for­mer speech writer who now wields tremen­dous pow­er as a deputy direc­tor at the NSC).

Oba­ma did not rely on his func­tion­al experts to do this work, the peo­ple who would have to mobi­lize the enor­mous appa­ra­tus of gov­ern­ment to accom­mo­date any big change in pol­i­cy; he went to per­son­al, trust­ed asso­ciates whom he knew would always defer to his judg­ment. His staffing deci­sions had the effect of cut­ting the State Depart­ment out of state­craft (at a speech last year in Cuba, John Ker­ry made it a point not to acknowl­edge Rhodes’ work while prais­ing Oba­ma’s oth­er advis­er, a sub­tle but unmis­tak­able snub).

More pro­saical­ly, Oba­ma has made choice after choice that belie a wor­ry­ing igno­rance of the pow­er that good staff can have. Hillary Clin­ton is crit­i­cized for the vast patron­age and crony net­work she com­mands, but that net­work was able to rapid­ly staff the State Depart­ment in 2009; in con­trast, John Ker­ry, who does not com­mand the same net­work, had senior lev­el nom­i­nat­ed posi­tions lan­guish emp­ty for months, some­times up to a year (I remain baf­fled as to why he nev­er tapped his many van­i­ty projects, asso­ci­a­tions, and board mem­ber­ships to fill out those ranks, and yes I am say­ing this hav­ing worked at one of his van­i­ty projects for a few years).

At defense, Oba­ma decid­ed to first just sort of coast along with the Repub­li­can who had filled the post before­hand; even­tu­al­ly Gates moved on. Then he decid­ed to send in the polit­i­cal aparatchik Leon Panet­ta, who had mud­dled his way through the CIA, to try to fight off seques­tra­tion instead of plan­ning for it in a ratio­nal and order­ly way (which cre­at­ed enor­mous upheaval). Then, Oba­ma decid­ed to tap anoth­er Repub­li­can, Chuck Hagel, who was not on the same page as him­self and who blew basic pol­i­cy ques­tions dur­ing his nom­i­na­tion hear­ing. It was­n’t until this last defense sec­re­tary, late into Oba­ma’s tenure, that he set­tled on a man, Ash Carter, who has the right mix­ture of exper­tise, knowl­edge, skills, and per­spec­tive to keep the lights on.

When you look at these sorts of staffing cock­ups (Oba­ma has nev­er, I don’t think, hired an effec­tive chief of staff who has made things run more smooth­ly), it makes sense that so many of them write burn books when they retire from gov­ern­ment. It isn’t because Oba­ma’s ideas are bad, it is because he has done a very poor job man­ag­ing his staff — whether hir­ing the wrong peo­ple for the wrong job, or pro­mot­ing from with­in just to reward loy­al­ty absent any con­sid­er­a­tion of skill, to hir­ing a ton of aca­d­e­mics to join agen­cies with­out mod­er­at­ing their expec­ta­tions of what gov­ern­ment ser­vice is real­ly like.

So look­ing for­ward to the poten­tial pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, it is worth exam­in­ing where their staffing picks might come from. This is where things get wor­ry­ing: rev­o­lu­tion­ary can­di­dates who say they hate Wash­ing­ton just won’t hire good staff. But the peo­ple who do know how to field a deep bench of effec­tive staff are also bor­ing: peo­ple don’t like Hillary Clin­ton for many rea­sons, but one of them is that she does­n’t excite many peo­ple. JEB! and Mar­co Rubio are fair­ly bland as can­di­dates, but they also demon­strate deep engage­ment with the var­i­ous tiers of offi­cials who are need­ed to make things run effec­tive­ly.

This is not an endorse­ment for any one can­di­date. It is, how­ev­er, a plea to look a bit beyond the sexy real­i­ty TV aspect of the cam­paign to inves­ti­gate just how a can­di­date would gov­ern: if they would hire good staff or if they’re just throw a bunch of wrench­es into the machin­ery and assume every­thing will func­tion nor­mal­ly.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.