An incoming president’s most important task is staffing his administration with allies who understand and share his policies, and are dependably loyal. Because of his surprise victory, President-elect Donald Trump risks repeating the staffing mistakes that hindered President Richard Nixon’s first term. It isn’t too late to adopt at least part of President Ronald Reagan’s successful approach.
The president must appoint the secretaries, deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, and assistant secretaries of cabinet-level agencies, and the administrators of major sub-cabinet agencies such as the Office of Management and Budget and the Environmental Protection Agency. Many more lower-level positons must be filled in order for the executive branch to function. The total number of appointees has swollen from about 2,000 during the Nixon and Reagan years to about 4,000 today.
Ask anyone who has participated in a presidential transition: the 70-odd days between election and inauguration pass in a flash. Advisers urged Nixon during his tough battle against Hubert Humphrey in 1968 to identify possible appointees before the election. He initially rejected the advice, arguing that it was better to pick staff when—and if—he won. Eventually, however, Nixon authorized a modest effort to come up with names. According to campaign insider Martin Anderson, the search yielded no useful candidates. After his victory, Nixon and his kitchen cabinet came up with suggestions for different posts. They identified nominees for the cabinet secretaries and some subcabinet positions, but ran out of time and mostly left it up to the nominees themselves to select their subordinates. The result was an incoherent administration; the numerous lower-level appointees included Democrats and independents with a wide range of non-Nixonian policy positions.
“Nixon lost his opportunity to govern before he started,” said Anderson, who also served Reagan. Unlike Nixon, Reagan accepted the idea of planning for his administration prior to winning the election. Lists of qualified candidates were in hand by Election Day, and Reagan’s White House Office of Personnel kept tight control over all the appointments. Seven months before the 1980 election, I received a letter from a campaign official, John McClaughry, asking me to send along articles I’d written on privatization. “I would like to see you as an assistant secretary of HUD under President Reagan,” read the final sentence of his letter. Two days after the election, I was called to Washington and appointed to that post.
When Reagan took office, many incumbent political appointees lost their jobs. Counselor to the president Edwin Meese organized an extensive briefing program to bring the secretary-designees up to speed on the departments they were taking over. They were also briefed on Reagan’s policies and priorities concerning their particular agency’s policy portfolio. The result was a coherent administration that understood and shared the president’s outlook and priorities.
President-elect Trump, in a more organized campaign, might have followed this part of Reagan’s strategy and avoided Nixon’s profound mistake of ceding control of his appointments. Trump’s energetic start has produced impressive, strong-minded nominees. Some of his picks, however, have already strayed from the policies outlined by their new boss. It remains to be seen how Trump handles these defections.
A second element of Reagan’s successful management of the executive branch was his consistent ability to minimize the drag placed on his agenda by the so-called Iron Triangle. A perpetual hazard for new administrations, the Iron Triangle consists of (1) the permanent employees of a department or agency; (2) the congressional committees with a stake in the growth of—and deference to—a corresponding executive department or agency; (3) the department or agency’s constituents—for example, the farmers, farm organizations, and lobbyists who do business with the Department of Agriculture. Cabinet departments are sprawling bureaucracies with a variety of employees. Some civil servants can serve effectively under different presidents. But many tenured “lifers” have their own views and can influence, delay, subvert, and otherwise throw sand in a new government’s gears. The pressure is tremendous, and presidential appointees are often captured by the Iron Triangle.
Early in his administration, Reagan held frequent cabinet meetings, sometimes two or three a week, the principal purpose of which was to acclimate the members of his cabinet to the idea that they worked for the president, not for the Iron Triangle. By coming so frequently to the White House, Reagan’s appointees bonded with their peers—and with the president. If he is to avoid the threat to his agenda posed by the Iron Triangle, Trump should follow Reagan’s lead.
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