Challenges to a Loyal White House


by Heath Brown

The last couple of weeks (six months?) have demonstrated the enormous challenges of governance, even for the most powerful person in the world. President Trump’s campaign promises to quickly Make America Great Again through dozens of major policy changes have been frustrated at nearly every turn. While the President has altered policy in significant ways, especially on issues directly impacting some of the country’s most vulnerable communities, there have been notable failures on health care repeal, construction of a border wall, tax cuts, and infrastructure.

What explains this paradox?

Opposition from the Courts, Congressional Democrats (and a few recalcitrant Republicans), and many governors and mayors explains a lot about the President’s limited policy achievements. Civil society activism and an engaged media also have played a part in the frequent policy standoffs.

But closer to home, the complexity of life in the White House is an overlooked dimension of the President’s struggles. For someone new to politics and government, the President has not seemed to appreciate that loyalty is not a singular concept, and definitely not what it is in a privately-owned business. The President demands fealty from White House staffers — as well as many others in government — and decries a scourge of leaking, yet, as George Edwards noted in the past, he may fail to recognize that loyalties are often divided and conflicting.

To start, White House staff are often loyal to their party. Reince Priebus served as 3-term chair of the Republican National Committee before being chosen White House chief-of-staff. Priebus has been a loyal Republican for longer than the President, even if Trump is now the recognized leader of the party. Yet, loyalty to party and loyalty to the President are not the same thing,
especially for a President whose beliefs only occasionally align with the longstanding GOP platform. Interestingly, the President’s newly chosen replacement for Reince Priebus, John Kelly, has many fewer partisan attachments, having served in the military for most of his career.

Second, White House staff are often loyal to issues. The White House is made up of dozens of offices and councils overseeing everything from economics to women’s issues to the environment. President Trump recently created a new office to focus on innovation. Staffers assigned to work in these units develop issue expertise and an interest in seeing the issue move up the President’s agenda. They may also develop relationships with the interest groups that care deeply about these issues. For these staffers, they may serve at the pleasure of the President, but their loyalty may be stretched toward their concern for an issue as well.

Third, staffers may develop loyalties to government itself. This may be particularly the case for politically-appointed Cabinet officers who oversee a vast bureaucracy of lifetime civil servants. While many in the Cabinet come into the job closely tied to the President and skeptical of careerists, James Pfiffner has demonstrated that some embrace the views of those already in government, even if those views conflict with the views of the White House.

Finally, and probably most importantly, White House staffers are loyal to the truth, to the Constitution, and to the democracy. For more than two hundred years, those principled loyalties almost always aligned with loyalty to the President. It remains to be seen whether our new President can command loyalty to his policy agenda and his presidency through rather than around, on top of, or in conflict with the Constitution.

Heath Brown is an Assistant Professor of Public Policy and the host of the New Books in Political Science podcast.


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