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Why Do OMB Directors Make Good White House Chiefs of Staff?

15 Jan 2012
Posted by Stan Collender

The word "good"in the headline above is not a judgment call on the tenure of the three OMB directors/White House chiefs of staff this post is about. Instead, the headline is about this question: Why do OMB directors appear to the presidents they serve as a "good" choice for chief of staff?

This is a question that was asked repeatedly this past week after the third consecutive administration replaced an existing COS with someone who at the time was the director of the Office of Management and Budget. In case you're too young or too old to remember, the OMB-to-WH switches were Leon Panetta (Clinton), Josh Bolton (Bush 43) and, now, Jack Lew.

The same basic question is often asked by baseball analysts and fans about why catchers frequently become managers.


The answer is that being a catcher means that you have to do more than just play your own position: You are a coach on the field who has to understand strategy, call pitches, and communicate with and motivate the pitcher. You have to see the whole field rather than just the area around home plate, although you have to play that position too. You also have to be ready to take one for team when you get hit by a foul ball or get slammed by a runner attempting to score while you block the plate.

Although it's anything but a perfect analogy, being OMB director is remarkably similar to being a baseball catcher.

You have to know more than just your own department or agency; in fact, you're responsible for understanding the entire scope and breadth of federal activities. You also, of course, have to be able to manage your own agency.

You also have to approve almost all regulations, oversee management responsibilities and, in many administrations, review and approve congressional testimony and other statements by the rest of the cabinet.

Other than the White House senior staff, the OMB director is the one person in the administration who has to see the big picture and understand how it all fits together.

Especially these days, you have to work with Congress and be able to deal with what is an almost constant crisis situation.

Finally, the OMB director often, perhaps even usually, has to have a good enough relationship with the other agency and department heads to be in a position to negotiate and settle disputes before they get to the Oval Office.

In other words, a substantial part of what an OMB director does is to implement what the president wants to do.

All of this means that the OMB director is already operating like a White House chief of staff while he or she is at OMB.

In many respects, OMB director is similar to being the chief operating officer of a large corporation. That makes you an obvious candidate whenever the CEO, that is, the WH chief of staff, leaves.

Why doesn't every OMB director become COS? In much the same way that every catcher doesn't become a manager and every COO doesn't become the CEO, there are a variety of reasons including how well you do at OMB, your relationship with the president, your relationships with Congress (which has to confirm your appointment), the timing and, of course, the specific needs at the time of the vacancy. A more election-savvy COS might be more important in an election year, for example.

But the fact that the OMB director is frequently considered for or often becomes chief of staff shouldn't ever be a surprise.

COS appointment

Quick note: the WH Chief of Staff actually isn't a Senate-confirmable position.

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