Why don’t presidents delegate more policy decision-making power to their cabinet secretaries? Why does White House staff have so much power over big policy decisions relative to the much more visible Cabinet?

  • Most big policy issues cross multiple jurisdictions within the government, especially outside the national security realm. This makes it hard and at times illogical to entrust one cabinet secretary to make decisions that so directly affect parts of the government for which he is not responsible and does not have expertise.
  • It is quite difficult to get one cabinet Secretary to take orders from another. Cabinet and especially sub-cabinet officials will take and follow orders from White House staff that they will not take from their peers in other departments, because they perceive those White House staff as speaking for the president. Cabinet secretaries are successful people who when hired were told they’d report to the president, not to another cabinet secretary. Not a lot of small-ego type-B personalities here.
  • While you could delegate a certain amount of money to a cabinet secretary, it’s hard to delegate amorphous resources like “political capital” or “legislative priority.” To make these tradeoffs the president looks to those with responsibility for his entire agenda and all of his interests, not just a subset. His White House staff are the only ones with responsibility for that breadth.
  • Cabinet secretaries and their staff have institutional interests that overlap with but differ from the president’s. Treasury staff of course ultimately work for the president and they try to advance his agenda. They also have narrower, more local and self-interested priorities. This leads them to think about the Treasury Department’s issues, problems, responsibilities, powers, and points of view; the same goes for other agencies. White House staff think first, second, and third about what the president needs to succeed.
  • Time and place matter. The senior White House staff sit in the West Wing with the president while the cabinet secretaries are in other buildings, some more than a mile from the White House. The president naturally relies on people close to him. Cabinet secretaries spend little time with the president. White House staff are with / near him every day and have a better sense of what he wants and needs. They are closer when he needs information or to make decisions, and they are better aware of his mindset and perspective.
  • Early in an Administration the senior White House staff slots are filled by campaign aides who are close to the president and are deeply committed to him and his agenda. The president knows, trusts, and relies on them. Cabinet picks are often new hires, and even the best of them take time to earn the trust and respect of their new boss.
  • Some cabinet secretaries are newbies to government, and some just aren’t great decision-makers. Some are chosen for reasons other than their policy expertise or judgment: some are good managers, others are great communicators, and still others are chosen to check political boxes.
  • While there are plenty of cases of White House staff seizing/holding power for their own reasons, in most cases the centralization comes from the president’s desire to make decisions for himself rather than to rely on others, including the Cabinet. It’s the president who centralizes power; his White House staff help him do that. People who run for president tend to like to make the big decisions themselves. They have the ultimate responsibility when things go wrong, so they choose to keep the authority to match that. The buck really does stop at the Resolute desk in the Oval Office.

Update: I struck the opening line about my view of the President-elect’s initial Cabinet picks. It was distracting readers from the main point of the piece.