Yesterday I explained why presidents don’t delegate more policy decision-making power to their cabinet. Instead the president makes the big decisions, supported by his White House staff. This makes the White House staff powerful. Now let’s peek inside the White House.

What are the most powerful policy jobs in the White House?

First, a few caveats.

  • In this post we’ll look only at the top tier of White House staff, each of whom has the rank of Assistant to the President. That’s an oversimplification but a useful starting point.
  • My answer is based on my experience in the George W. Bush (43) White House. Your mileage may vary.
  • The various senior roles have different forms and tools of policy power. I may write about that in a separate post later but won’t do so here.
  • Here I’m focusing on the power that derives from the position and the operating patterns of the White House. Some particularly effective advisors “punch above their weight” and have a policy impact larger than their role might suggest here.
  • I’m using White House a bit loosely. Technically a few of these advisors (OMB, CEA, CEQ, OSTP) are part of the broader Executive Office of the President and aren’t formally in the White House. In practical terms there’s little difference.
  • I’m excluding “policy czars” that existed in the Obama White House but not in Bush 43.

OK, let’s dive in. I’ll divide the senior White House advisor jobs into three buckets:

  1. five policy advisors who run the policy processes within the White House;
  2. six non-policy advisors who have a different principal function but nevertheless play a major role in advising the president on big policy decisions; and
  3. four policy advisors that are the leads for specific areas of expertise.

In terms of total policy impact I rank the buckets 1-2-3. Those in bucket 2, however, often are more powerful than the policy council directors in bucket 1 if we’re thinking about more than just policy impact, and also when we’re talking about tradeoffs among issues.

I’m going to leave the Vice President and the White House Chief of Staff out of the following. Both play at a level above all of what follows.

Bucket 1: The most powerful policy-only jobs in the White House are:

  • Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy
  • Assistant to the President and National Security Advisor
  • Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and Director, National Economic Council (aka “NEC Director”)
  • Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and Director, Domestic Policy Council (aka “DPC Director”)
  • Director, Office of Management and Budget (aka “OMB Director”)

Within the White House these policy positions have the greatest impact on policy because (a) that’s their job and responsibility, (b) they run the policy decision-making and implementation coordination processes, (c) they work with agencies on policy on a daily basis; and (d) part of their job is to “own” the policy issues within the White House, acting as the keeper of the answer to every question of the form “What is the president’s policy on ________?” In the Bush 43 White House the Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy had an oversight role over the NEC, DPC, and OMB, so you should think of that slot as a notch above those three.

Bucket 2: The non-policy White House jobs that have the biggest policy impact are:

  • Assistant to the President for Legislative Affairs (aka “Leg Affairs”)
  • Senior Advisor or Counselor or Strategic Advisor (the political advisor, e.g., Karl Rove, Valerie Jarrett, and soon Steve Bannon)
  • Assistant to the President for Communication (aka “Communications Director”)
  • Assistant to the President and Press Secretary
  • Chief of Staff to the Vice President
  • Staff Secretary

These six roles each have a non-policy principal function within the White House. They are major players in all the big presidential policy decisions because (a) they are close to the president, (b) they are each the principal advisor on a key element of a president’s policy decision (Congress, politics, communications, press), and (c) they do that for every single policy decision (i.e., maximum breadth). The first five of these six advisors were in every NEC Principals meeting we had, and, more importantly, were in every economic policy decision meeting we had with the president. Bucket 2 advisors often play a smaller role in national security issues because some presidents are reluctant to politicize national security decisions.

The Staff Secretary is a special case with enormous potential to influence policy almost invisibly. I may write about that separately but won’t spend time on it here.

I have excluded the Chief Speechwriter because the role comes with little formal policy power. This, however, is one of those roles where a particularly influential chief speechwriter can occasionally have significant influence on certain policies.

Bucket 3: The White House policy specialists are:

  • White House Counsel (the president’s lawyer)
  • Chairman, Council of Economic Advisers (aka “CEA”, the economist)
  • Chairman, Council on Environmental Quality (aka “CEQ”, the environmental expert)
  • Director, Office of Science and Technology Policy (aka “OSTP”, the scientist)

Each of these is a subject matter expert. Each plays in a wide range of policy issues and has a seat at every policy table where his or her expertise is relevant. These slots are different from the first bucket in two ways. First, these jobs are best held by true experts (e.g., a brilliant legal mind, an accomplished economist and scientist, etc.), where the Bucket 1 policy process management jobs can be held by generalists. The head of CEA has to be a terrific economist, the NEC Director can but doesn’t have to be. Second, these specialist advisors have somewhat narrower subject matter scopes than the policy process managers. For our purpose here we’re looking at the White House Counsel as the legal expert. He or she also has a separate role as the president’s lawyer.

I’ll end by reinforcing yesterday’s post about the policy importance of White House advisors relative to the Cabinet. On national security issues SecState and SecDef are often heavy hitters relative to the White House staff, but on other issues the White House staff’s policy impact often significantly outweighs that of the relevant cabinet secretaries.

Take a straightforward issue like pension reform that involves three cabinet departments: Treasury, Labor, and Commerce. In the Bush White House a policy meeting with the president to get decisions on pension reform would have the following principal-level attendees:

  • Vice President
  • Chief of Staff
  • Deputy Chief of Staff for Policy
  • NEC Director (runs the meeting)
  • Leg Affairs
  • Senior Advisor
  • Communications Director
  • Press Secretary
  • VP’s Chief of Staff
  • CEA Chairman
  • White House Counsel or Deputy Counsel
  • OMB Director
  • Secretary of the Treasury
  • Secretary of Commerce
  • Secretary of Labor

Excluding the president and VP, count ‘em up: three cabinet secretaries and eleven senior White House aides (counting OMB as White House). That partly demonstrates the policy power of White House staff.