Roles of the White House Chief of Staff


In this paper I examine the roles of the White House Chief of Staff. The three roles of the chief of staff are to manage, to advise, and to protect the President of the United States. I examine three specific roles, including (1) personnel manager, (2) information broker, and (3) lightning rod.  Data from my research was assembled from analysis a systematic sample of news articles from LexisNexis about the presidential chiefs of staff. Gallup's presidential approval ratings were correlated with the three difference roles identified. With regard to the lightning rod, I found that the relationship between the presidential approval rating and their respective chief of staff's volume of articles is much too simple an approach; similarly, the effectiveness of the chief of staff as personnel manager is also difficult to ascertain. This research is increasingly important as the strength and influence of a chief of staff continues to increase in the White House.

Table of Contents: 


    "How close can you walk to the edge without falling off? For those who live life close to the edge, the White House holds a strong appeal" (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 95-96). Known for their notoriously long hours, infinite obstacles, and paradox of responsibilities, the White House Chief of Staff is one of the most powerful positions in government, and arguably only second in importance to the President of the United States (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 112). However, their utility is a relatively recent development: in the not too distant past–as recently as President Carter–one might have contended that the White House did not require a chief of staff. But as crises become increasingly complex and indubitably demanding, President's sought the order and organization that could only be realized by a manager of sorts, or who we now recognize as the chief of staff. Serving at the pleasure of the President, chiefs of staff perform seemingly thankless work; they acquire much of their motivation and satisfaction by helping to resolve otherwise irresolvable conflicts and by defining the legacy of a president for generations to come.

    The purpose of this research paper is to explore the relationship between the President of the United States and their corresponding White House Chiefs of Staff by answering three questions regarding their roles as personnel manager, information broker, and lightning rod: (1) Do White House Chiefs of Staff succeed in their role of personnel manager by organizing the Executive Office of the President (EOP) in such a way as to exude legislative success? (2) Do White House Chiefs of Staff succeed in their role of information broker by acting as an effective liaison between the media and the president? (3) Do White House Chiefs of Staff succeed in their role of lightning rod by taking accountability for undesirable policy decisions as a means of diverting blame from the president to themselves?

    Literature on the White House Chief of Staff is ostensibly limited as it is an infrequently researched but slowly evolving topic. Indubitably, much of the research that has been conducted is general and qualitative in nature; it has commonly focused on the institutionalization of the presidency and the roles of the chief of staff. Accordingly, quantitative analyses would be useful in furthering this body of research as it would provide supplementary support for these particular roles.

    In my research, I will test the following three hypotheses:

    (1)   The greater the rate of high-level staff turnover, the lower the number of bills passed;

    (2)   Using newspaper articles coded based on the roles of the chiefs of staff, more articles will have an emphasis on information as opposed to bureaucratic organizational preferences and the taking of responsibility for unpopular decisions; and

    (3)   The president's approval rating and the number of newspaper articles about their chief of staff are positively correlated; the higher a president's approval rating is, the more articles about the chief of staff there are likely to be.

    Unelected and beholden only to the president, the position of chief of staff is unsurprisingly not salient among the public. However, given their undeniable influence, it is imperative that we understand more about their role in the White House. The chief of staff is currently appointed by the president and does not require confirmation by the U.S. Senate. Considering that the potential for great power is conferred upon them solely by the president, one might argue that their capacity to persuade the president one way or the other, behind closed doors, is undemocratic. After all, chiefs of staff are often political players themselves and have their own personal agendas. With this criticism in mind, the public and academics alike ought to afford them more attention as a means of holding them accountable and providing a level of transparency. The following sections include a thorough literature review, case study, data and methods, results, and conclusion.

    Literature Review

    Roles of the White House Chief of Staff

    The structure and organization of the White House has changed significantly alongside the rise of its respective staff members. Several studies have researched the growth and institutionalization of the presidency (Cohen 1997; Cohen 2002; Ragsdale 1993; Walcott and Hult 1999; Walcott, Warshaw and Wayne 2001). This institutionalization has resulted in a highly specialized staff, and while this change has limited the control of the president himself, it has allowed for the expansion of executive influence and responsibility (Cohen 1997; Walcott and Hult 1999; Ragsdale 1993). Ragsdale (1993, 243-246) categorizes the structures of presidential organization as competitive, collegial, and hierarchical. The hierarchical structure has been used by every president since Reagan due to its unique ability to distinguish an explicit chain of command, via the chief of staff, for staffers to follow. As a result, presidents are able to make decisions on a multitude of issues.

    Seven groups of researchers have identified several specific roles that the chief of staff is said to fulfill (Cohen 1997; Cohen 2002; Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012; Kumar and Sullivan 2003; Perotti 2012; Ragsdale 1993; Walcott, Warshaw and Wayne 2001). Although these researchers have labeled these roles differently, three roles have consistently been the same: manage, advise, and protect. Cohen (1997, 40-41) and Walcott, Warshaw, and Wayne (2001, 467) both recognized the importance of a chief of staff's control and influence; the latter referred to these roles as managerial and advisory while the former created a White House Chief of Staff Typology using administrative control and advisory influence to posit four explicit roles: custodian, sentry, counselor, and vicar. In 2002 (465-469), Cohen deviated from this typology and argued that the chief of staff serves as an administrator, adviser, and guardian. Nonetheless, these two articles are not mutually exclusive: the custodian complements the importance of administration; the sentry complements the importance of guardianship; the counselor complements the importance of advice; and the vicar is the culmination of all three of these things to an extreme. Kumar and Sullivan (2003, 112) lend further legitimacy to these roles with their concurrence that former chiefs of staff identify their managerial and advisory roles as "critical". Similar to Cohen (2002), Ragsdale (1993, 247) describes an administrative role ("personnel manager"), an advisory role ("information broker"), and a guardian role ("lightning rod"). While Perotti (2012, 53-54) acknowledges a multitude of these responsibilities, she also indicates a fourth, that of spokesman. Also referred to as the role "proxy", chiefs of staff are often lent the voice of the president during their interactions with members of Congress, interest groups, and media blitz campaigns (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1109).

    Two studies indicated that prior political experience and confidence of the president are the two most important qualities that a chief of staff should possess (Cohen, Vaughn and Villalobos 2011; Walcott, Warshaw and Wayne 2001); James Baker III, former chief of staff, echoes this claims, "It [political credentials] gives you far more cache in policy debates and interdepartmental policy. . . . If you’ve been out there and fighting the political wars with the president, you are in a better position to speak to those issues that other people are not who just maybe gave some money" (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 115). Cohen, Vaughn, and Villalobos (2011) have also shown that an administrative presence, advisory capacity, accessibility, and guardianship of the president are also essential qualities; chiefs of staff that exhibit these traits are more likely to be seen as effective by their fellow bureaucrats in the White House Office (WHO), EOP, and Cabinet of the United States. Conversely, Walcott, Warshaw and Wayne (2001) warn that chiefs of staff with decision-making experience often struggle to relinquish their desire for power, resign to subservience, and pursue the president's best interests instead of their own.

    Personnel Manager.  With regard to the role of personnel manager, Kumar and Sullivan (2003) go into great detail. First and foremost, the chief of staff is expected to recruit those who will operate the West Wing and whom they will supervise; the importance of this team cannot be understated. According to Roy Neel, chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, "The whole administration is often defined by your mistakes and your successes in the first year" (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 6). Since Nixon, all administrations from have had morning meetings. The smaller of the two is often referred to as the "real meeting"; only the chief of staff and the senior staff attend. Issues concerning the White House are often debated candidly as a means of making conscientious decisions, the outcomes of which are later announced at the larger meeting. These larger meetings consist of the heads of various EOP offices and are chiefly informational in nature; in short, the goal is to ensure that everyone is on the same page (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 78). Ultimately, the chief of staff is tasked with assuring that all West Wing personnel pursue the president's agenda in spite of their own. In addition to managing the EOP, the chief of staff is charged with distinguishing who and what is should be allowed into the Oval Office. It is also paramount that they are honest brokers and offer differing perspectives and recommendations to the president (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 112-114); this is greatly emphasized in the role of information broker.

    Information Broker. When facilitating who and what reaches the president, the chief of staff must meticulously monitor the information so that all relevant points of view are represented and the president is not irresponsibly biased (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 124). They must also advise the president honestly, without giving their personal views greater weight; ultimately, the focus must be on the president's agenda. Without presenting the president with every alternative view, the chief of staff risks him being blindsided, as well as losing the trust of the cabinet (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 129; Patterson 2008, 41). That being said, the chief of staff should feel free to share his opinion at the president's request. Cohen, Hult, and Walcott (2012, 1107) regard this as "crucial" seeing as they are usually "the last line of defense against faulty decisions."

    Chiefs of staff are also responsible for maintaining positive congressional relations as a means of implementing the president's agenda. In Congress, trust reigns supreme. President Johnson recognized this and advised his staff to foster friendships with members of Congress, "[L]et them know that you are their man in the White House. . . .  When the time comes that you need their help, they will feel they should do what they can for you. Perhaps they can't give you their vote, because their constituency won't allow it, but they might be willing to forgo a filibuster or be absent from the floor of the Congress at a crucial time," (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 10). Andrew Card, President George W. Bush's first chief of staff, regarded congressional relations as thirty percent of his responsibility. They are also dealt the hand of conversing with the media; this includes acting as a spokesperson and holding formal and informal briefings (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 132-133).

    Lightning Rod. Compared with the others, there was considerably less research and information on the role of lightning rod. However, one thing is for certain, chiefs of staff are saddled with the unpopular burdens such as telling people “no” and firing personnel; this often puts a large target on their backs (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1108; Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 129). Richard Nixon summed this role up best: "A good chief of staff is seldom popular. He must carry out tough decisions . . . that his boss makes but is reluctant to execute . . . [and] he sometimes finds he doesn’t have many friends or supporters.” By protecting the president, they are expected to accept the blame and pass the credit–achievements they often worked hard to deliver–to him (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1109).

    Rise in Influence of the White House Chief of Staff

    As alluded to earlier, the institutionalization of the presidency has coerced presidents into adopting the hierarchical structure of presidential organization. Indeed, presidential decisiveness has been ascribed to the hierarchical structure because it provides presidents with the discretion to choose among a selection of alternatives; by absolving him of incessant staff interruptions, the president's time and attention is reserved for making the important decisions (Ragsdale 1993, 247). However, presidential success is not consistent with the strength of a chief of staff, but rather their ability to manage a bureaucracy (Cohen, Vaughn and Villalobos 2011, 3). Cohen, Dolan, and Rosati (2002) echo this claim, "Given the changes in the political environment, presidents have come to rely upon White House-centered management systems. . . . [I]t has also increased the president's reliance on the COS" (42). With increasing opportunities, presidents must rely on their chief of staff in order to accomplish their goals and meet the public's increasingly high expectations.

    Centralization: Roosevelt and Truman (1933-1953)

    When Roosevelt first assumed office in 1933, there were no specialized departments in the White House. In order to develop his policies, he began creating new agencies and his assistants began helping him write speeches to attract the attention of the press. By 1939, The EOP was created (Hess 2002, 1-26) and Roosevelt was responsible for managing its operations (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1102). Having centralized more power into the presidency, Roosevelt's increased the public's expectations alongside the growth of the government (Hess 2002, 35). Truman continued this trend and began categorizing his staff by function (Watson and Markman 2004). As the size of the White House grew, these functions became more specialized.

    White House Chief of Staff: Eisenhower to Johnson (1953-1969)

    Influenced by his experiences in the military, Eisenhower was the first to establish the position of chief of staff in the White House (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1101; Perotti 2012, 53). His first chief of staff, Sherman Adams, perhaps made the greatest contributions by defining his roles; he took on managing the White House, counseling the president, guarding his interests, and advancing the administration's agenda on Capitol Hill (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1102-1105). Despite Eisenhower's successes, Kennedy and Johnson abandoned the hierarchical system in favor of the spokes of the wheel model; they eliminated the role of chief of staff and insisted that their assistants became generalists once again (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1103). Despite these setbacks, the EOP continued to grow and became increasingly dependent upon the president to mobilize public opinion and influence the other branches of government to implementing their agenda. The president's self-reliance cultivated cynicism towards many of those working in the White House. This sense of loyalty to only a few would later characterize much of the Nixon presidency (Hess 2002, 76-90).

    The Modern Presidency: Nixon to Bush (1969-Present)

    Nixon's model, which included the creation of many diverse offices, eventually became the framework for the modern presidency. Despite these structural successes, Nixon limited his company to only a few advisers with whom he felt most comfortable (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 117-118). Towards the end of his presidency, however, these advisers had very limited access. Concealing the level of his involvement in Watergate, he eventually withdrew completely. While some blame Nixon’s malfeasance on the people around him, the decisions that ended his career were ultimately his own. As William Safire wrote, “[Nixon] was the captive of nobody; he made his fate the extension of his character" (Hess 2002, 102-114). After Nixon's resignation, Ford found himself "haunted by the ghost of Richard Nixon" (Neeson 2011, 111). Part of this was due to the fact that Ford kept Nixon’s chief of staff. Despite his best efforts to distinguish himself, Ford was never able to overcome Nixon's legacy (Hess 2002, 120-121).

    Carter returned to the model set forth by Kennedy and Johnson; he wanted to be his own chief of staff. He expected his staff to identify problems, present their solutions in writing, and leave the final decisions for him to make in private (Hess 2002: 124). This open-door policy, however, confused his appointees who often did not know to which policies they were supposed to support. Although he appointed a chief of staff by the thirtieth month of his presidency, the damage had already been done. Reagan benefited greatly from Carter’s missteps as certain needs became clear: a chief of staff, definitive goals, and ideological agreement (Perotti 2012, 53-54). Contrary to Carter, Reagan knew exactly what he wanted to achieve. Though the experiences of his chiefs of staff were vastly different, they demonstrated the importance of the job. Overall, his unambiguous vision generated camaraderie among his cabinet; their loyalty was incontrovertible (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1102-1105; Hess 2002, 144-145). Following Reagan, George H.W. Bush's administration inadvertently indicated the importance of one's chief of staff being neither too strong nor too weak; this fine line, however, remains elusive (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1102-1105).

    Akin to Carter, Clinton initially believed that he could single-handedly manage his staff, virtually acting as his own chief of staff (Perotti 2012, 53-54). However, he quickly learned the value of discipline imposed by another entity (Hess 2002, 163). Leon Panetta – his strongest chief of staff – eventually introduced the hierarchical structure into practice; this is now commonly referred to as the “standard model” of contemporary White House organization (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1102-1105). Having learned from his predecessors' mistakes, George W. Bush began his staff search early and announced his chief of staff – Andrew Card – shortly after the election (Hess 2002, 163; Schier 2008, 67). Generally speaking, Bush and Obama have both been perceived as conforming to the “standard model” that has permeated the executive branch (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1102-1105).


    As a result of increasingly complex challenges and adverse circumstances, the role of chief of staff has inevitably become more defined in recent years; all presidents have a had a chief of staff since 1979 (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1102-1105; Perotti 2012, 53-54).While Democratic presidents have been historically loath to appointing a chief of staff, Republicans have relied tremendously on strong ones; strength can be characterized by their control of information and access to the president (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, 117-118). Ultimately, however, the chief of staff is constrained by the president’s needs and administrative style; if a president chooses to centralize an issue around himself, there is little recourse for a chief of staff to take. The greatest consequence of institutionalization is that "presidents should not be managers, but they must ensure that the White House is well managed" (Kumar and Sullivan 2003, xxi).


    There are several shortcomings in the research done on the chief of staff, most of which can be remedied by additional research. Because the topic of the chief of staff is relatively new, much of the research that has been done on it has been centered around the institutionalization of the presidency and the growth of the federal bureaucracy in general (Ragsdale and Theis 1997). While the significance of this should not be dismissed outright, there is still much work left to be done. The relatively new emphasis on the roles of the chief of staff and the importance of their duty to the president is a step in the right direction. My hope is to take this one step further by evaluating a chief of staff's three primary roles, that of personnel manager, information broker, and lightning rod, and explaining whether or not the chief of staff actually succeeds in establishing an effective and loyal EOP, presenting the media with the president's agenda, and absorbing much of the negative sentiment directed at the presidency for unpopular policy decisions. I will use a quantitative method of assessment unlike the methods used in the majority of the previous studies.

    Case Study

    Andrew Card and the Iraq War

    Personnel Manager. Characterized as a facilitator, it is no surprise that President Bush selected Andrew Card to be his first chief of staff. With the belief that his management of the White House should reflect Bush's needs, Card spent much of his tenure overseeing the cabinet by encouraging them to focus on affecting the president's agenda. (Patterson 2008, 40; Woodward 2006: 355). Very early on, Card conceded that he kept Bush on a short leash (Patterson 2008, 44-45); however, once he realized that he was running the risk of adversely isolating the president, he abdicated his control and granted high-level staff direct access to the president" (Schier 2008, 67).

    Following 9/11, Card was to become well-acquainted with members of the Cabinet and the EOP. Despite their failures throughout August 2002, Card reassembled several senior staffers into the Situation Room on September 3. Originally called the "White House Iraq Coordination Meeting," the White House Iraq Group (WHIG) was concerned with persuading Congress to authorize an Iraq war resolution before the midterm elections (Moore 2004, 27-28; Woodward 2004, 168); by leaking information to reporters perceived as friendly to the administration, they succeeded before the end of October (Sniegoski, Findley, and Gottfried 2008, 164). With war on Iraq rapidly approaching, Card began sitting in on meetings between the president and Cabinet members; one of these meetings involved Colin Powell who warned the president about the consequences of going to war, something the president arguably never grasped (Woodward 2004, 151-152). As these types of conversations increased, many people, namely Donald Rumsfeld, began questioning Powell's loyalty. After Bush secured a second term, Card faced the worst task in his capacity as chief of staff: requesting Powell's resignation.

    Although Card established close rapport with several of the other cabinet secretaries, his relationships with Rumsfeld diverged for many reasons. On a number of occasions, for instance, Rumsfeld refused to take Card at his word and demanded that his requests come from the president directly; this kind of disrespect and insubordination did not sit well with Card. He wasn't alone: Rice and Hadley also often found themselves at odds with Rumsfeld. At one principals meeting in particular, Rice and Rumsfeld had a disagreement concerning what to do about the drop in oil exports in Iraq (McKenna 2003); while Rumsfeld argued that the Iraqi's should take this responsibility upon themselves, Rice contended that protecting their economic infrastructure was vital to mitigating the counterinsurgency facing the U.S. military. This debate augmented Card's skepticism of Rumsfeld's expertise considering his complete lack of concern towards the potential for sectarian violence, not to mention all out civil war. Regarding his role as mediator, Card recalled, "I was frequently the person trying to take sand out of people's underwear, which is a very difficult task if it's not your underwear" (Woodward 2006, 367; 427).

    Information Broker. Perhaps the most famous depiction of Andrew Card fulfilling his role as information broker was on the morning of 9/11; everyone remembers the iconic photograph of Card interrupting President Bush and informing him that the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, had hit the second tower, "America is under attack" (Woodward 2002, 15). Shortly after 9/11, Card and other senior staffers met at Camp David to discuss their plan of action. Despite his lack of foreign policy experience, Card defined the enemy as Al Qaeda and seemed reluctant to target Iraq. Powell dismissed Iraq altogether and explained that, without a link between Iraq and 9/11, they could lose their coalition, "They’ll view it as bait and switch – it’s not what they signed up to do." Vice President Dick Cheney agreed, "If we go after Saddam Hussein, we lose our rightful place as good guy." Taken together, Card, Powell, Tenet, and Cheney all opposed striking Iraq; Rumsfeld abstained (Woodward 2002, 89-91). Ultimately Bush decided to target Afghanistan, "We’re putting Iraq off, but eventually we’ll have to return to that question" (Woodward 2004. 25-26).

    In September 2002, Card was quoted by the New York Times as saying, "From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August" (Lindsay 2003: 134-137; Miller 2003, 41; Moore 2004, 27-28; Woodward 2004. 172); many accused the chief of staff of trying to sell a war. Meanwhile, the WHIG that Card organized began corroborating with senior staffers in Tony Blair’s administration. They worked to convince the public, Congress, and other allies about the necessity of invading Iraq due to the threat posed by Saddam Hussein; together they created a media echo chamber. Their message of fear eventually won out and WHIG experienced little journalistic dissent. It wasn't until much later that the press accused the Bush administration of perpetuating uninformed, blatant lies. On the night that Bush declared combat operations to begin in Iraq, he pressed Card for affirmation, "You would do this?" "Yes, this is the right thing to do. Absolutely," Card said (Woodward 2004, 393). Bush then requested for some time alone. Despite the support of his chief of Staff, Bush was realizing that "the decision to go to war is the loneliest moment that presidents face" (Bumiller 2003).

    Related to his role of personnel manager, Card explained how he determined who got to speak with the president, "[N]obody needed to justify what they were doing, except they had to pass their own test of need versus want. If I found that they had violated that test and had pretended that their want was a need, I mean, I would rap their knuckles pretty hard” (Patterson 2008, 44). With respect to his own time with the president, the two would meet in the Oval Office at the end of each day and Bush would tell Card who he saw and what he did throughout the day. Finally, Card attended all National Security Council (NSC) meetings and strongly held that the chief of staff should not only know as much, but more than the president, "The truth is, they have to know more than the president knows–which ends up being a burden because then you have to decide what the president should not know" (Patterson 2008, 45).

    Lightning Rod. Perhaps the greatest example of his role of lightning rod was Card's last act as chief of staff: his resignation. This decision did not come easy and took nearly two years to realize. After the manipulation of the media and the shock and awe campaign in Iraq, Bush won reelection in 2004. Two days later, Card and his wife joined Bush and the first lady at Camp David. Despite their success, Card could not eschew the fact that the Bush administration was caving in. After all, they never did find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

    Despite the ease with which information flowed up to the president, this information had proved to be inaccurate at best. Considering all of the problems facing the administration, Bush wanted a bureaucratic shakeup–but Card did not think that any changes would be accepted without leaving himself. Questioning his own usefulness, Card asked Bush, "When you married Laura it was for better or worse. With me it's only for better. If it isn't better, I'm out of here” (Woodward 2006, 353-355). Although Bush requested that he stay, he dissented, "You should not ask me to stay. It's a mistake to ask me to stay" (Woodward 2006, 353-355). At the end of the day, Bush talked him into staying. However, this did not erase the doubts clouding Card's mind; he was unconfident in his ability to promote change. After all, he had been undeniably subsumed in the entire administration's past; it was Card's meetings, the WHIG that induced the American public to trust Bush's decision to invade Iraq. In the end, he surmised that he was too closely associated with the past to ever be considered an agent of change for the future (Woodward 2006, 358).

    Over the next two years, Card tried to persuade Bush to replace Rumsfeld twice. He believed that Iraq was going in the wrong direction and that Rumsfeld was responsible for misleading the administration to involve them in the first place. Bush never relented in large part because he thought Rumsfeld was indispensable to his military agenda (Morton 2004). By 2006, Bush's administration had gone from bad to worse; Iraq was a disaster, Hurricane Katrina exemplified their incompetence, the Republican Senate revolted against Harriet Miers, Scooter Libby was indicted for leaking the identity of Valerie Plame, and Dick Cheney accidentally shot a guy in the face. Altogether, Bush's reputation was in shambles and his approval rating began to sink below 40 percent. On March 8, Card had finally worked up the courage to talk himself out of his job. When the media reported that Claude Allen, a former domestic policy adviser, was arrested by police before the administration even knew about it, Bush admonished Card. He was concerned that a former staffer could be taken into custody without the chief of staff being the first to know. Card seized this opportunity to offer his resignation, "[I]f this is not comfortable for you, this is a perfect time to lay it all on me" (Woodward 2006, 447-449).

    On March 24, Bush tentatively acquiesced to Card's request to resign; their time together had come to an end. Despite this reprieve, he worried about the fate of Iraq. Neither he nor anyone else in the administration had seriously considered alternatives to or exit plans for the war. Card believed that the generals and Rumsfeld should be found culpable for the mistakes made; the president would never have engaged the military had he not been convinced of its necessity. Card felt responsible for the pervading axiom that President Bush was incompetent; perhaps he had never been a suitable chief of staff after all. He also recognized his contributions to the popular perception that Bush was arrogant despite his best intentions to market him as confident. But what bothered him the most was that he was leaving while Rumsfeld remained (Woodward 2006, 454-456). Ironically, the media did not consider Card's resignation as enough to constitute an administrative shakeup; Rumsfeld, Rove, and others were seen as better candidates for departure. After six years in a highly demanding position, most thought Card was simply exhausted (Editorial 2006).

    Rahm Emanuel and Health Care Reform 

    Personnel Manager.  Unlike Andrew Card, Rahm Emanuel was not known for his quality management skills. In fact, many criticized Obama for appointing him as his chief of staff and suggested that Emanuel's determination and experience would have been better used as an adviser (Gelb 2010). This characterization quickly became understood as Rahm was arguably too involved in the day-to-day minutiae of the West Wing. Because everything had to be run by Rahm before it even stood a chance to be seen by the president, his office was described as "the White House nerve center" (Horowitz 2010). Whereas Card was fairly relaxed with regard to staffers expressing their opinions to President Bush, Emanuel delegated very little and tightly controlled the flow of information. However, Rahm did not attend all of Obama's meetings, although most of the time at least one senior staffer who was involved in the subject matter was present. Additionally, high-level aides had independent access to the president (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1114). All of that being said, he clearly elucidated the president's agenda in meetings with a group of senior staffers every morning. He was considered to be very organized and managed his daily tasks with index cards; one aide estimated that he would call upwards to six times a day to determine whether or not it was time to toss a particular card. If the matter had not been resolved, the card was retained and would be inquired about the very next day.  Despite his aggressive personality which resulted in him abruptly hanging up many people, he almost always called them back to discuss their disagreement (Horowitz 2010).

    Although the president's ambitions were widely understood by the White House staff, they largely left legislation, especially with regard to health care reform, up to Congress. While Obama indicated his general expectations and principles, Congressional Democrats criticized the administration's distance as a "laissez-faire strategy". Emanuel responded that the White House had only given "leeway to legislators to legislate, not leeway to take a policy off track" (Pear and Stolberg 2009). He also intimated that, while the president may not be directly involved, senior staff provided significant direction. Much of this direction involved just getting a health care bill through the tedious legislative process, something many members of Congress disparaged; their strategy was intended to be a gradual process whereby they could assuage legislator's doubts along the way (Balz 2009).

    Information Broker. Emanuel's role as information broker was established early in Obama's first term. His most famous quip, "You never let a serious crisis to go to waste" set the tone for the rest of his interactions with the media. Although this comment was directed at the state of the economy, it has also been applied to social welfare reform. Ultimately, the Great Recession created an opportunity for change (Jacobs and King 2012, 10). Even prior to Obama's election in 2008, health care was a national disaster–so much so, in fact, that one study found that the price Americans pay for health care services greatly exceeds that of other industrialized nations (Anderson, Reinhardt, Hussey, and Petrosyan 2003, 103). As a growing number of Americans–upwards to 45 million–did not have health insurance, it should come as no surprise that health care was one of the top domestic policy issues of 2008 (Young 2012). In fact, every candidate produced their own health reform plans. But by the time Obama was elected, the economic crisis was critical. A few Democrats, including Emanuel, advised the president to focus on the economy first and come back to health care reform after the unemployment rate had stabilized. However, the Obama administration decided instead to convince Congress that health care reform was a necessary component of fixing the economy (Watson, Covarrubias, and Lansford 2012, 200-201).

    Emanuel's legislative approach was greatly influenced by his experience in the House Democratic leadership. Every member of Congress had his personal cell phone number and none of them could avoid him, not even at the House gym (Rowland 2010). What hindered him in his role of personnel manager is actually what helped him in Congress—his attention to detail and oversight on even the smallest of legislative matters (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1116). Although he publically rejected the administration's incremental approach (Watson, Covarrubias, and Lansford 2012, 200-201), Emanuel did praise Obama's strategy of setting broad goals and forcing the White House and Congress to haggle over the specific ends (Baker 2009). While the administration eventually compromised on abortion and the public option, their strategy to just keep the bill moving through Congress paid off. This is because Obama succeeded where seven other presidents failed: passing meaningful health care reform (Murray and Montgomery 2009).

    Emanuel embraced the news media and was arguably the most accessible chief of staff in recent memory. He used television to announce controversial policies and to float possible tactics of the administration; he also provided on-the-record talking points to journalists. Rahm was a very public face of the administration and spoke with candor, a rare quality in Washington (Kurtz 2009). Despite his refreshing honesty, Emanuel’s salesman approach garnered a lot of criticism. This became especially evident when, in two television appearances, Emanuel suggested that the public option was not necessarily a deal breaker, "It's not the defining piece of health care" (Cohen, Hult, and Walcott 2012, 1116; Connolly 2009).

    Emanuel spent a lot of time with the president, advising him at the beginning and end of each day. He matched Obama's idealism with his pragmatism and found himself constantly reminding Obama about the immense size of their workload (Fineman 2010; Woodward 2010). Rahm concurred with health care reform, but he advocated for a smaller bill that included only certain provisions, such as extending coverage to young adults and ending the denial of coverage to those with preexisting conditions; he reasoned that these things had enough public support and could be leveraged for the passage of bipartisan legislation, unlike the public option (Bacon and Kane 2009). However, Obama did not listen to Emanuel's advice, despite his awareness of the legislative process. As a result, instead of quickly passing a popular health-care bill and moving on to solving other problems, Congress gridlocked (Milbank 2010). While Democrats blamed Emanuel for not persuading the president that "change you can believe in is best pursued through accomplishments you can pass" (Horowitz 2010), with his help the administration eventually succeeded. As Rahm Emanuel likes to say, "The only thing that is not negotiable is success" (Baker 2009).

    Lightning Rod. While both Card and Emanuel eventually resigned, Rahm attracted a great deal of animosity throughout his short tenure. While many people attributed Obama's policy failures to his unpopular chief of staff, others lauded him for the administration's accomplishments. Taken together, Obama and Emanuel's personalities differed markedly (Jacobs and King 2012, 5). While Obama has been accused of being passive and lacking leadership skills, Rahm has made a career out of his shrewd and cheeky charisma; by playing his bad cop to Obama's good cop, Rahm experienced a number of legislative successes including passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, or what has colloquially become known as "Obamacare" (Baker 2009; Feldmann 2010). Despite his achievements, his willingness to compromise, particularly on health care reform, irked Democrats and Republicans alike (Weigel 2010). The former blamed him primarily for losing the public option while the latter accused him of advancing partisanship. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Emanuel had said that the president was ready to negotiate the creation of a federal health insurance plan, but the president quickly dismissed Emanuel's suggestion by validating his support for "a public option that will force the insurance companies to compete and keep them honest" (Lambro 2009).

    Due to his involvement in nearly every aspect of the Obama administration, Emanual set himself up to be blamed for almost anything; this became increasingly likely after Congress passed Obamacare and the president's approval ratings took a hit (Horowitz 2010). However, Cohen, Hult, and Walcott (2012) suggest that Emanuel did exactly what a chief of staff in the capacity of lightning rod is supposed to do. "[T]he reason Obama hired Emanuel [was] to push the legislative agenda forward and take the blame when things went awry" (1115). Ironically, history seems to have favored Emanuel's advice over Obama's decisions (Harnden 2010; Horowitz 2010). Emanuel eventually resigned to pursue other personal ambitions.

    Data and Methods

    Necessary Resources

    There are several resources that I used to conduct my research including my laptop, Microsoft Excel, the internet, Willis Library, access to LexisNexis, and Gallup's presidential tracking polls. While the results are expected to be mostly quantitative in nature, I will also pick up some of the qualitative legwork by tracking George W. Bush and Barack Obama's approval ratings alongside their respective chief of staff's volume of articles through particular events/policies (i.e.; the Iraq War and the Affordable Care Act). It is also worth noting that I used Gallup's Presidential Job Approval Center to average the weekly approval ratings for the Bush and Obama administrations in order to achieve their monthly averages. I also used LexisNexis' advanced search options to narrow my search terms to each particular chief of staff, to specify the date between the day that they assumed the office and the day that they resigned, and to use the Washington Post as its select source with no section search requirements.

    Process of Conducting Research

    Personnel Manager. I primarily used two websites, the White House and the Library of Congress, to gather the information used for this section. The former allowed me to ascertain what bureaucratic agencies exist within the EOP, as well as who constitutes the White House Staff. I later determined who the agency executive, deputy chief of staff, counselor to the president, and senior advisor has been and for what duration from January 3, 2001 to January 3, 2013. The latter helped me calculate the number of public laws passed by each Congress. I expect that, if the chief of staff is an effective personnel manager, there will be less staff turnover and more laws passed.

    Information Broker. I used the LexisNexis Washington Post archive to access every article they published about each chief of staff for the duration of their tenure in the Bush and Obama administrations (January 20, 2001 to January 25, 2013). A comprehensive list was created with each article listed in chronological order and every fifth article was chosen to sample. This systematic random selection process allows for a selection across time to avoid intentional bias. I assembled the systematically chosen articles into both Microsoft Word and onto an Excel spreadsheet; the former was used to store each article for later analysis while the latter served as a means of inputting and calculating which roles could be identified most frequently in the Washington Post. Articles that contained extraneous information were tallied as a separate, fourth category.

    Lightning Rod. My methodology was reasonably simple and straightforward. I primarily accessed Gallup's presidential approval ratings and LexisNexis' Washington Post archive. I compiled the former into an Excel spreadsheet on a month-to-month basis beginning in January 2001 (George W. Bush's first term in office) and ending in December 2012 (thus completing Barack Obama's first term in office), The latter was used to calculate a sum of articles also on a month-to-month basis for each individual White House Chief of Staff, from January 2001 to December 2012. The chiefs of staff included Andrew Card, Joshua Bolten, Rahm Emanuel, Pete Rouse, William Daley, and Jacob Lew. Using Excel, I created a line graph depicting an overlay of George W. Bush and Barack Obama's Gallup presidential approval ratings and each chief of staff's volume of articles per month. This allowed me considerable flexibility and leverage in my comparisons.

    I am confident that the process I used produced reliable and consistent results because I only used one newspaper, the Washington Post. I chose this newspaper because it is published in Washington, D.C. and incontrovertibly focuses on national politics. In addition to reliability, I can reasonably assert that the process I used produced valid and true results because it possesses external validity; it is potentially generalizable across all chiefs of staff as the number of articles should be published with similar frequencies and biases toward salient events. It also demonstrates face validity as it is a clear measure of how much the chief of staff is being written about over a given period of time, thus serving as a proxy measure of the public's general interest in the chief of staff. Finally, there are three primary advantages in using LexisNexis: it is cost-free, readily available, and covers an extensive period of time.


    Personnel Manager.  I used a single line graph to represent the data that I collected on the number of bills passed by each Congress versus the number of high-level EOP changes made from January 2001 to January 2013; the primary axis depicts the former while the secondary axis depicts the latter. The most difficult thing I encountered was trying to find an accurate measure of the effectiveness of a chief of staff with regard to their role of personnel manager. Without access to any high-ranking officials, the best tool of analysis was using a proxy measure. Unfortunately, according to Figure 1, there does not appear to be a correlation between the number of bills passed and turnover within the EOP. In fact, the peak of the number of bills passed during the 108th Congress occurred during a period of the most turnover in the Bush administration. Although this attempt to explain the role of personnel manager was not successful, perhaps another measure would be more efficacious. That being said, one might argue that legislative success alone says plenty about a chief of staff's effectiveness; after all, they are the ones who makes make of the personnel decisions that directly affect the performance of the White House lobby.

    Information Broker. I used a bar graph to represent the data that I collected on the number of articles coded for each role of the chief of staff from January 2001 to March 2013 (Figure 2). Surprisingly, there were a lot of articles completely irrelevant to any of the three pertinent categories which explain why the miscellaneous category is so inflated. However, disregarding the irrelevant articles, the importance of a chief of staff's skills in terms of brokering information becomes abundantly clear: there are more articles concerning this role than personnel manager or lightning rod combined. The reason for this is probably because the role of information broker is infinitely more accessible; furthermore, one of the main purposes of information broker is to interact with the media. Regardless, considering the impact that a chief of staff can have on the public's perception of an administration in this capacity, perhaps the best chief of staff is one who is charismatic and deferential to the press.

    Lightning Rod. I used a single line graph to represent the data that I collected on presidential approval and the volume of articles on each chief of staff from January 2001 to December 2012; the primary axis depicts the latter while the secondary axis depicts the former.  Although Figure 3 is an accurate illustration of my data, the limited number of articles that the Washington Post had written on all of the chiefs of staff, with the lone exception of Rahm Emanuel, makes it exceedingly difficult to draw any definite conclusions. My hypothesis is that the presidents’ approval rating and the number of articles about their chiefs of staff are positively correlated in that the higher a president's approval rating is, the more articles there are likely to be about the chief of staff. I would argue that this hypothesis is dependent on the administration.

    During the Bush administration, President Bush only appointed 2 men to be his chief of staff throughout his 8 year tenure, Andrew Card (January 20, 2001 – April 14, 2006) and Joshua Bolten (April 14, 2006 – January 20, 2009). The most surprising finding concerning Andrew Card should come at one's first glance of Figure 3. While Bush received a significant 44 point bump in his approval rating in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, Card experienced no such change in the number of articles published about him. Perhaps this can be explained by John Mueller's (1970, 21) rally 'round the flag effect which would suggest that President Bush received his substantial, albeit temporary, boost in his popularity merely because of the national crisis. As a result, instead of buying into the usual partisan politics, the American people desired news that supported the president rather than questioned him (Finnegan 2006). However, Card’s articles and Bush’s approval rating did correlate somewhat. In November 2002, both Card's articles and Bush's approval numbers increased marginally perhaps in conjunction with the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security on November 25, 2002. Created with the intention of consolidating federal intelligence agencies in response to the failure of these institutions to communicate on September 11, the bill did not pass without controversy. While much of the public supported the president in his call for future safeguards in order to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks, many government employees voiced their concern about their union rights which could explain the minimal, rather than significant, increases. A few months later, Card and Bush both also increased in April 2003 (Bush by 20 points); this can be explained by the beginning of the Iraq war the previous month which again follows the principles of the rally 'round the flag effect. After Bush's reelection in 2004, Card's articles remained relatively stable in volume in stark contrast to the steady decline of Bush's approval rating which would plague him for the rest of his presidency. In response, Bush attempted to revitalize his presidency with a cabinet shake-up wherein he replaced Card with Joshua Bolten in 2006. In comparison to Card, Bolten had even fewer articles published about him in the Washington Post over his two year tenure, a total of 23. As a result, he remained steadily low in his figures alongside President Bush's equally low approval ratings. This likely had a lot to do with the economy going from bad to worse in the wake of the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis, as well as Bush's lame-duck status.

    Unlike Bush, Obama had twice the number of chiefs of staff in half the time, including Rahm Emanuel (January 20, 2009 – October 1, 2010), Pete Rouse (October 1, 2010 – January 13, 2011), William Daley (January 13, 2011 – January 27, 2012), and Jacob Lew (January 27, 2012 – January 25, 2013). However, my hypothesis can be more clearly seen in the Obama administration's first term. Although Rahm Emanuel's number of articles appears to be quite temperamental, it has a clear downward trend in sync with Obama's declining approval rating. As anticipated, this trend continues with the rest of Obama's chiefs of staff, apart from Jacob Lew. Taken as a whole, Rahm Emanuel clearly stands out among the other chiefs of staff in that he has had incomparably more articles written about him; he more than doubly exceeded all of the other chiefs of staff combined. Consequently, there is much more to look at related to his relationship with Obama's approval ratings. To start, the number of articles about Emanuel are fairly volatile in that they increase and decrease extensively over his year-long tenure. Overall, he appears to quite convincingly trend downward along with Obama's decrease in approval toward the end of his honeymoon period. The number of articles written about Emanuel peaked in March 2010 at 38; this is the same month that the president signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) into law. His popularity waned by August 2010, perhaps due to the newsworthiness of Justice Elena Kagan's nomination and later confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States or the speculation of his resignation that summer. Following Emanuel, all the rest of Obama's chiefs of staff have received considerably less attention from the Washington Post. Rouse, Emanuel's successor, left much to be desired throughout his short, 3 month duration. He experienced too short a time in his position as chief of staff for one to make any realistic analyses; however, despite his short tenure, he traversed a small dip and then increased on pace with Obama's approval ratings. After Rouse, Daley's number of articles remained relatively reserved throughout his one-year stint as chief of staff despite having served about the same conservative amount of time as Emanuel. However, his presence during the mission that killed Osama bin Laden in May 2011 resulted in a similar bump for Obama and Daley in approval and number of articles respectively. Nevertheless, he generally staggered throughout much of the year. Finally, comparing Lew alongside Obama presents similar challenges as faced with Bolten; there is just not enough data to recognize a real, clear pattern. Furthermore, from the data that is present, Lew received very little press even in light of the 2012 presidential campaign and the looming fiscal cliff. At best he remained consistently low-key.

    All of that being said, while it definitely does not appear that there is a negative correlation, it may be that there is no correlation at all. The number of articles written about Bush's chiefs of staff are very static in relation to that of his approval rating. In addition, Jacob Lew never received an upward tick in the number of articles written about him as Obama evidently did in popularity as a direct result of his reelection campaign; this could perhaps be explained by the White House's changing priorities in an election season. Overall, I think that there is something to be said about my findings with regard to the similar slopes of Obama's approval ratings and the number of articles for his respective chiefs of staff. However, Bush does not appear to follow this same pattern; the inclusion of more articles from other newspapers (e.g.; the New York Times) might help in making a distinction one way or another by simply having more data to analyze.


    Although I believe I reached a fairly definitive conclusion with regard to the role of information broker, the other two roles are much less decisive. With regard to lightning rod, I found that the relationship between the presidential approval rating and their respective chief of staff's volume of articles is much too simple of an approach; similarly, the effectiveness of the chief of staff as personnel manager is also difficult to ascertain. Returning to my hypotheses I reached the following conclusions:

    (1)   I did not find evidence that the rate of high-level staff turnover had any effect on the number of bills passed;

    (2)   When newspaper articles were coded based on the roles of the chiefs of staff, more articles emphasized information as opposed to the other two roles; and

    (3)   The hypothesis that the higher a president's approval rating, the more articles about the chief of staff there are likely to be, was more consistent with the Obama administration than with the Bush administration.

    This has a great deal to do with the fact that the number of articles is only a proxy measure and cannot directly gauge the level of approval or disapproval by the American public. Furthermore, there was very limited data provided by the Washington Post which may have been alleviated by supplementary newspapers.

    The three roles of the chief of staff, to manage, to advise, and to protect, are still worthy of further exploration, especially quantitatively. This research is increasingly important as the strength and influence of a chief of staff continues to increase in the White House. Perhaps more interviews with former chiefs of staff and others in the EOP could shed some light on the role of personnel manager. Finally, regarding the role of lightning rod, this literature could be expanded by sampling articles about various chiefs of staff and coding them in order to ascertain the public perception of each chief of staff. One might also research the potential differences between a chief of staff in a Republican versus Democratic administration.


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    Figure 1: Bills Passed vs. EOP Turnover

    Figure 2: Articles Sorted by Content

    Figure 3: Presidential Approval vs. White House Chief of Staff Articles