In 1936 Franklin Roosevelt felt overwhelmed. The New Deal had begun to spawn dozens of new agencies, and Roosevelt, fearful of the fragmentation of the executive branch, asked for help. The Brownlow Committee, an independent panel tasked with finding a new model of White House management, proposed offering the president some personal staff. “They would remain in the background, issue no orders, make no decisions, emit no public statements,” the committee explained in a report responding to public skepticism about growing the size of government. Over the next two years, Roosevelt recruited six trusted aides.
Nowadays, six aides is roughly the number Barack Obama has to handle incoming mail—a small fraction of the 469 employees who work in the White House Office and councils for domestic and economic policy, the core staff of the presidency. Other officials include an ethics adviser, a special assistant for “mobility and opportunity policy,” a director of African-American media, and a special assistant for financial markets, to name just a few. Days in the West Wing are a constant, head-spinning oscillation between dozens of domestic, foreign-policy, and political eruptions and concerns.
On the spring day that Obama signed his health-care-reform law, for instance, he also had an economic briefing on unemployment, discussions about financial reform, a meeting at the Department of the Interior, a quick lunch, a meeting with senior advisers and then with Senate leaders on ratification of a new nuclear-nonproliferation treaty with Russia, and an Oval Office summit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on devising a model for Middle East peace. On cable TV, meanwhile, pundits offered nonstop analysis of the holes in the new reform package, while Sarah Palin renewed accusations of Obama’s “government takeover” of health care. A new poll showed that, for the first time, more of the country disapproved than approved of his job performance. In an interview with 60 Minutes that week, the president joked, “If you had said to us a year ago that the least of my problems would be Iraq...I don’t think anybody would have believed it.” Then he laughed. Steve Kroft, the interviewer, asked if he was “punch-drunk.”
More often, Obama projects a demeanor of unruffled cool: he can handle the pressures and demands of the job just fine (how could he suggest otherwise?), and he didn’t run for office “to pass on our problems to the next president or the next generation.” But the issue is not Obama, it’s the office. Aides to George W. Bush make similar complaints about the demands on the executive. “It was a much different place than even during the Bush Sr. administration,” says Joe Hagin, Bush 43’s deputy chief of staff, who also worked for Reagan and Bush 41. “There was much less time [under the second Bush] to catch your breath during the day.” He recalls the constant juggling of issues—from the wars to Katrina—often all at the same time. “There’s only so much bandwidth in the organization,” he says.
Can any single person fully meet the demands of the 21st-century presidency? Obama has looked to many models of leadership, including FDR and Abraham Lincoln, two transformative presidents who governed during times of upheaval. But what’s lost in those historical comparisons is that both men ran slim bureaucracies rooted in relative simplicity. Neither had secretaries of education, transportation, health and human services, veterans’ affairs, energy, or homeland security, nor czars for pollution or drug abuse, nor televisions in the West Wing constantly tuned to yammering pundits. They had bigger issues to grapple with, but far less managing to do. “Lincoln had time to think,” says Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University. “That kind of downtime just doesn’t exist anymore.”
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Among a handful of presidential historians NEWSWEEK contacted for this story, there was a general consensus that the modern presidency may have become too bloated. “The growth is exponential in these last 50 years, especially the number of things that are expected of the president,” says presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin, who had dinner with Obama and a handful of other historians last summer. Obama aides speaking on background say that the president’s inner circle can become stretched by the constant number of things labeled “crises” that land on his desk—many of which, like the mistaken firing of Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod in Georgia or the intricacies of the oil cleanup in the gulf, could easily be handled by lower-level staff. “Some days around here, it can almost be hard to breathe,” says one White House official who didn’t want to go on the record portraying his boss as overwhelmed. Another senior adviser says that sometimes the only way to bring the president important news is to stake out his office and “walk and talk” through the hall.
The growth of the presidency has been a sort of Catch-22. Most presidents after Roosevelt, at least until the Vietnam era, got by with only a few dozen advisers. Ted Sorensen, the Kennedy speechwriter who died last month, was actually hired as a domestic-policy counselor, one of only a handful (he wrote speeches in his spare time). Today there are more than 35 staffers devoted to domestic policy, plus more who parachute in on particular issues, like health care or energy. Yet as the president’s responsibilities have grown, the instinct has been to hire more people to help manage the work, including the flow of information. “That’s wrong; the more people you have in the White House, the more problems are sucked into it,” says James Pfiffner, a George Mason University professor of public policy whose 2007 book, The Modern Presidency, examined the enormous growth of the office. Other historians point to the changing role of cabinet secretaries. While Obama has more department leaders than ever before—15, compared with Gerald Ford’s 11 and Lincoln’s 7—many of them have less power and influence, which has required minor decisions about trade, energy, and economic strategy to be handled by White House staffers.
Political scientist Thomas Cronin once credited the period between World War II and Watergate as the “swelling of the presidency.” It was during the Eisenhower administration that historians first asked if the president simply had too many demands. But those were far less cluttered times. “We had a lot to do, and many people were asking questions, but we were never overwhelmed,” says Harry McPherson, who served as counsel, then special counsel, to Lyndon Johnson. Such memories sound quaint to current White House staffers. “There is never a day we come in and there are only a few things we need to do,” says Bill Burton, Obama’s deputy press secretary.
Even though the White House has grown with each successive inhabitant (many of whom, it’s worth noting, vowed to reduce its size), one moment stands out as the most striking expansion of the office in recent years. The 9/11 terror attacks, in some ways, made being president easier. Struggles over education and agriculture that had mired George W. Bush’s first year in office were replaced with just one big expectation: to keep America safe. Bush’s approval rating shot from 50 to 90 percent in one week.
As the toll from the war against Islamic extremists faded from view, however, national security became yet another area for expansion of the bureaucracy. Since 2001, 33 new facilities and several new agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, have been created to monitor and coordinate intelligence, adding hundreds of jobs to the federal infrastructure. A Washington Post investigation this year found most agencies rarely share information, and turf battles are often relegated to the White House.
Administration staffers and historians seem to agree on one point: the news media, often transfixed on tension and triviality, aren’t helping. “Back in the ’80s, people didn’t feel like the press was on you all the time like they have been for the past few years,” says Hagin, the former aide to Reagan and both Bushes. Eager to please their editors, reporters—many from new Internet outlets—constantly compete for whatever scraps they can procure, no matter how evanescent. Several months into Obama’s presidency, The Washington Post jockeyed to land the scoop on the breed of the first family’s new dog. Not long after, the celebrity-news Web site TMZ set up a Washington office, and Politico started a franchise to monitor D.C.’s gossip. Presidential reporters occasionally pose absurd questions—about whether Obama will take a dip in the gulf, or if it’s appropriate for a comedian to call the president “dude”—to drive Web traffic. When Obama does speak, his aides lament that a seemingly infinite army of pundits critiques every line, which, in turn, diminishes the power of the office’s bully pulpit.
The proliferation of news sources has benefits for the country, of course: at their best, journalists ensure transparency. The tools of new media are also useful to the president and his communications staff. “People before us didn’t have blogs or things like Twitter to communicate,” Burton says. “Those things are enormously helpful now to inform the country of what we’re doing.” But the 24-hour cable-news cycle also means the president rarely escapes the media glare. “Now our power to know what the president is up to has massively increased,” says Ted Widmer, a speechwriter in the Clinton administration. “But constant criticism doesn’t make his job easier.” When serious questions do arise, the ease with which minor snafus are billed as scandals can cripple and distract the chief executive. Obama’s foray into the Shirley Sherrod saga may never have happened under Reagan, who got involved in the far more consequential Iran-contra scandal and air-traffic controllers’ strike only after weeks of work by lower-level staff. Moreover, the number of speeches presidents now give—Obama delivered 57 in October alone, (including some fundraisers), written by a staff of seven speechwriters—can dilute the power of each one. Eisenhower’s and Kennedy’s speeches often dominated prime time, yet Obama’s weekly YouTube addresses (designed to mimic Roosevelt’s fireside chats) now rarely get more than 30,000 views online.
Obama has hinted at the pitfalls of an overly packed agenda. During a press conference earlier this month, he partially blamed it for his midterm rebuke: “The responsibilities of this office are so enormous, and so many people are depending on what we do, and in the rush of activity, sometimes we lose track of the ways that we connected with folks that got us here in the first place.” Yet despite efforts to meet with ordinary people in backyard campaign events all summer, he hasn’t really acted to alleviate his burden. On the campaign trail, he talked, as all candidates do, about making government more efficient and gutting agencies that weren’t working. Still, although he has proposed several billion dollars in cuts, Obama has yet to make any substantial reductions; instead, he added the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and proposed a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Climate Service to monitor greenhouse-gas emissions. This summer, officials expressed interest in adding 200 employees to the agency overseeing offshore drilling. The new offices are designed to address new problems, yet they also mean more people for the executive to manage.
It’s hard to imagine how the office could sizably shrink, allowing the president to return to a more aloof, strategic role. Academics in Eisenhower’s day imagined two presidential figures, one for serious decision making and one relegated to the office’s ceremonial duties. Modern scholars see other solutions within the Constitution. “Presidents ought to give more thought to their cabinet choices, and then give them a little more deference,” says Marc Landy, a professor of political science at Boston College. The simplest experiment could involve reducing the West Wing staff, thus relying more—by necessity—on outside agencies.
Before he left the White House this fall, then–chief of staff Rahm Emanuel sensed the constant and overwhelming flow of information to the president. Obama’s evening briefing book, which includes everything that wasn’t discussed during the day, was getting bigger. “We need to make his memos shorter,” Emanuel told senior staff, according to someone involved in the briefing process. “Last night we sent the president a phone book.” As a result, memos were slimmed, with just key points up front, followed by a long appendix the president could choose to read if he wanted to. It was a good idea at the time, and still is. In the weeks since, however, the length of the memos has begun to grow again.
With Kathleen Maloney in Washington