Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Presidential Politics

When Reagan political affairs director Lyn Nofziger was asked what, in the White House, he considered to be political, he reportedly replied: "Everything." That one-word answer is an accurate summation of the White House environment. Every presidential issue is political, in the broad sense that the President's decisions test the limits of consensus in the country. Politics -- in the narrower sense of partisanship -- colors each presidential action as well: it may excite -- or threaten -- the support of the President's party. If an action succeeds, there is political hay to be made, but if even a "nonpartisan" national security initiative crashes, the President's popular standing plunges with it.

President Lyndon Johnson's policies in Vietnam forced him out of the presidential race. The Iran-Contra affair damaged President Ronald Reagan. Breaking his "no new taxes" pledge cut deeply into President George H. W. Bush's support. But President Gerald Ford's popularity surged after the Mayaguez crisis -- and, yes, the picture of tots rolling Easter eggs on the nonpolitical White House lawn under the eyes of a human-sized rabbit leaves a warm, fuzzy feeling in the national psyche.

Policy and politics are inseparable, be they in the Rose Garden or the Persian Gulf. The President is head of his party and a domestic political leader wherever he goes, whether to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation or the Great Wall of China. Every two years, when congressional elections take place, the White House is drawn deeply into those battles; when the President's reelection is pending, the White House is Political Central.

In recognition of the political "everything," the recent presidencies have used two kinds of support teams for the modern White House: the Office of Political Affairs within the formal staff structure, and private sector consultants from outside. The two are different in status. The former are insiders, paid from White House funds. As federal employees, they are subject to federal ethics, conflict-of-interest, and financial disclosure rules and to post-employment restrictions. The latter are outsiders, paid from campaign or national party committee accounts, and may not be required to file disclosure reports.

Both sets of confidants funnel advice to the President and the senior staff. But the political affairs staff, being in the White House, can reach out and pull levers in the cabinet departments; private sector consultants have no directive authority. The Office of Political Affairs staffers will roam the Hill, negotiate on the President's behalf with members of Congress, give speeches to outside groups. The consultants do not have these mandates and concentrate on bringing their counsel directly into the Oval Office.

The consultants have a unique source for much of their advice: polls, which they themselves (and often the President, too) prepare and which are financed by party or campaign funds. They also place and pay for political advertisements -- an action that no White House staffer can undertake with appropriated monies. Unlike the party's national committee, outside consultants do not have to engage in the arduous business of raising funds, nor are they burdened with the administrative responsibility of helping to manage a network of fifty state offices.

In the end and at the top, during the Clinton years, three bands of partisans -- the Office of Political Affairs; the outside consultants; and, on occasion, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) -- collaborated reasonably closely. They conferred with each other and with the President in inner-circle "Residence meetings." There, they shared poll results, debated their advice to the boss, and set priorities for political spending. Clinton's senior political staffer, in fact, instructed the chairman of the Democratic National Committee that all DNC campaign expenditures were to be cleared with the White House.

In the George W. Bush White House, Senior Adviser to the President Karl Rove, the President's point person on political matters, exerts an extraordinary degree of influence on the policy and operational work of the entire White House staff.