Unelected staff who elect themselves 'president'

As someone who comes down more on the conservative-libertarian side of the world from time to time, I still want President BidenJoe BidenSunday shows preview: US reaffirms support for Ukraine amid threat of Russian invasion The Fed has a clear mandate to mitigate climate risks Biden says Roe v. Wade under attack like 'never before' MORE to succeed, because if he succeeds in his job as president of all Americans, then our nation succeeds.      

To that  point, during his inaugural address, Biden said: “Yet hear me clearly: Disagreement must not lead to disunion. And I pledge this to you: I will be a president for all Americans. I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did.”

I honestly believe the president meant what he said. The question is, do all on his staff and within his greater inner circle agree with that unifying, American sentiment? We now live in increasingly toxic political times, so it would be safe to assume that some who are closest to the president want no part of that Pollyannaish, softheartedness and would prefer to metaphorically step on the throats of those they oppose.     

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Since that’s a possibility, two more questions logically come to mind: How much influence do these folks have over the president? And how much autonomy do they have to enact policy?     

I suspect that even most Democrats, at least in private, would admit that the Biden White House has sailed into turbulent waters lately and that the president does not always come across as captain of his own ship. If he does take his hand off the tiller from time to time, who grabs it — and does that person believe in their mind they know better than President Biden?     

No doubt, since the administration of George Washington, there always have been presidential staff members who believe themselves to be more intelligent and capable than the president himself. Leaving aside that usually delusional hubris, we come to the more pertinent fact: The American people elected said egotistical staff members to absolutely nothing.     

But, since that thought process apparently does play out within the West Wing from time to time, we have three relatively recent examples to ponder.

The first was when, on March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt. As Richard V. Allen, President Reagan’s national security adviser at the time, correctly recounted for The Washington Post on March 25, 2011: 

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“Within hours of the shooting, as doctors struggled to save the president and reporters clamored for information, Secretary of State Alexander Haig repeatedly insisted — wrongly — that he was in charge of the federal government. 

“Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the president, the vice president and the secretary of State, in that order, and should the president decide he wants to transfer the helm to the vice president, he will do so,” Haig explained to reporters in the White House press room, apparently forgetting that the House speaker and the Senate’s president pro tempore come before the secretary of State in the line of succession. And then, in a dozen words that would become famous, he said, ‘As of now, I am in control here, in the White House.’

“… That blurted declaration has become a classic Washington moment — and one that would end Haig’s own presidential suitability. A powerful Cabinet secretary had made a shocking mistake during a national crisis that demanded he display calm and command.”

Worse than that, Haig came across as a crazed “Dr. Strangelove” to a number of Americans during that surreal moment, and most likely petrified many of them.

Next on the list, we stay with the Reagan White House and cast our minds back to the feud between Chief of Staff Don Regan and first lady Nancy Reagan. To no one’s surprise, it was a battle easily won by a first lady who knew exactly how to protect her husband from overly ambitious staff. (In full disclosure, I worked in the Reagan White House during that time as a writer. While I was there, some thought that Regan believed himself to be either “co-president” or the country’s “prime minister.”) 

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Before Nancy Reagan drove him from the White House, the beleaguered chief of staff tried to tell the news media that it was she who had too much power. Mrs. Reagan instantly shredded that charge with humor when, before an audience of publishers, she said with a laugh: “This morning I had planned to clear up the U.S.-Soviet differences on intermediate-range missiles, but then I decided to clear out Ronnie’s sock drawer instead.” Game, set, and goodbye Mr. Co-President. 

Last, we come to an anecdote from Bob Woodward’s 1996 bestselling-book recounting the election between President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonPerdue proposes election police force in Georgia To boost economy and midterm outlook, Democrats must pass clean energy bill Could the coming 'red wave' election become a 'red tsunami'? MORE and Sen. Bob Dole, titled “The Choice.” 

Although I am not unbiased — I worked for Dole, post-Senate, as his director of communications and got to know both Clinton and Woodward — I truly do believe the book captures some of the best political back-and-forth of all time.

And within that book, we learn that Clinton had his share of staffers or inner-circle types who seemingly believed they could do his job much better than he. Said Woodward: “Many of those close to him had rebelled and turned him in, providing the media with unflattering accounts of his decision making. … It was one thing for this advice to be given in private. It was quite another for it to appear in print, as these unflattering accounts and too many others had. In fact, the most severe and authoritative critique of his administration had often been provided not by his opponents or the Republicans. It had come from the inner circle, even his wife and vice president at times. Clinton told a friend he was paying a terrible price because of the frustration of others who had their own ideas about how to do his job. Who could he trust?”

Who could he trust, indeed? 

Conservative, libertarian, or not, I believe Clinton to be the most brilliant president in the modern era. And yet, even with his brain power and exceptional communication skills, he was still plagued by that illness born in the Washington White House: staff members and inner circle cronies who believe themselves to be smarter than the president and who can be prone to making unilateral decisions based upon that belief.

Like Nancy Reagan with her “Ronnie,” there is no doubt that first lady Jill BidenJill BidenThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden talks, Senate balks Jill Biden adds to communications team in lead-up to midterm elections Harris invokes MLK in voting rights push, urges Senate to 'do its job' MORE has her husband’s back — as she must.

While history has chronicled a number of “legends in their own minds” on White House staff, there can and should be only one president of the United States at a time. Right now, that is Joe Biden.

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.