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To what extent do 'staffers' shape presidential priorities?

Mike McCartney

10th May 2021

Initially, I thought this was a fascinating insight into White House politics...

There was a long(ish) piece in the paper around a week ago, penned by someone who provided advice during the Obama administration.

For those of you who are not familiar with the term, in the US those who are on the payroll, but are often way more than an arm's length from power are called 'staffers'. Sometimes 'Young Turks' who graduated college within very recent memory. So, yes, many of these folks harbour political ambitions of their own, and if they are lucky enough to find themselves in one of the outer, concentric circles of a well known political figure this might give them a leg up. To what? Maybe a tilt at city mayor somewhere? Or a state congressman.

Anyway, that's the background. This is what an ex-Obama wrote regarding President Joe Biden's early moves:

"Policy decisions in Washington are made by the principals – the president, the senators and the cabinet secretaries – but their decisions are significantly constrained by the information they receive. I served as associate staff secretary to President Obama from 2015 until the end of his term, building his briefing book and ensuring the appropriate staff edited and commented on the memos he received, and I saw how this information shaped the president’s choices. The president’s staff give the president a policy menu of memos, data and updates on government programmes. Extending the menu analogy, presidential decision-making looks a lot more like choosing from a few items on the prix fixe than dictating a specific meal to a private chef."

So, on first reading I thought this was an insight into an approach to policy making I hadn't really considered. And I wanted to share it with students. Maybe as some kind of thing. Then I thought, if no one of any political gravitas has ever publicly given credit to these staffers, or that they hadn't appeared, say, in any political bio I had ever read, maybe they were overstating their importance? So the full article is an interesting opinion piece on how and why Biden's policy arrangements vis a vis a recalcitrant Congress are what they are, but I don't think a fair distance from the POTUS individuals, even as the kind of collective the author describes have that much influence.

Anyway, the full article is here:

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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