What’s It Like to Work for the President?

This White House in 2005.

Photo by Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images

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Answer by Matt McDonald, White House aide to President Bush:

It probably helps to start this by answering: How does the White House work? I’m not sure people have a good understanding of that to begin with, and it drives the question above. This, of course, is a very simplified view of a complex organization.

At a macrolevel, I would first differentiate the priorities of the White House from a campaign: On a campaign, much of the day-to-day work is driven by communications, press, and paid media messaging—until the last several weeks, when it is driven by the political shop (read: turnout, field operations). In the White House, much of the day-to-day work is driven by the policy process—the National Economic Council, the National Security Council, the Domestic Policy Council, etc. This makes intuitive sense because campaigns are focused on the sole objective of winning the election, and governing is focused on enacting policy.

From that perspective, the day-to-day work of governing at the White House focuses internally on either the policy process or preparation for external events that typically support policy (e.g. speeches, press conferences, state visits, etc). This means that the direct staff interaction with the president tends to focus on getting decisions on policy or preparing for external events. On the decision side, the process is designed to deliver the toughest decisions to the president with a balanced view of the options and arguments on both sides. (For a more detailed understanding of this, I highly recommend Keith Hennessey’s write-up on the topic.)

As to the personal interactions with the president, it obviously differs by the president. My direct interaction with the president was limited during my time at the White House, but I would make the following two observations that I think are valid regardless of the administration:

First, the White House is by definition a personality-centered institution that exists to help the president do his job. This effectively means that there is a great deal of attention paid upward by the staff toward the president. It’s kind of a reverse pyramid organizational structure, and if you were to put it in a business context, the staffs’ customer is the president, and the president’s customers are the voters. This is probably appropriate, but it has some strange unintended consequences. For example, White House middle-management can have an outsized influence on agency activities, simply because of a shortage of time at the senior-most levels of the White House.

Second, working there is both an honor and very cool. The hours are long, but there are few workplaces where you can pass the secretary of defense in the hall one day and Nelson Mandela the next. And if you’re lucky, as I was, you get to meet your baseball team after it wins the World Series.

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