Why proximity is power in the White House

Andrew Buncombe
·3-min read
<p>Joe Biden flanked by Kamala Harris and incoming Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin</p> (AP)

Joe Biden flanked by Kamala Harris and incoming Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin


Who do you think was the second most powerful person in Jeb Bartlett’s administration?

Leo McGarry, his tireless chief of staff? Wrong. CJ Cregg, his down-to-earth press secretary? Nope. What about his vice president, the rarely seen Bob Russell? Get out of here.

It was Ms Dolores Landingham, of course, who sat outside his Oval Office door, was executive secretary of his diary, and pretty much controlled who spoke to the president. In the White House, as in many other places, power is all about proximity.

That, of course, was The West Wing, the Aaron Sorkin-produced drama beloved by Democrats. Originally aired from 1999 to 2006, many binge-watched it again and again on Netflix during Donald Trump’s single term.

The reason we are talking about this now is that the folks at Politico have put together a map that essentially shows the seating plan in Joe Biden’s White House – and therefore, who we can expect to have the president’s ear more frequently than others.

Located very closely to the Oval Office are Senior Adviser Mike Donilon, Counselor to the President Steve Ricchetti, Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Deputy Chief of Staff Bruce Reed, and Jen O’Malley, another deputy chief of staff.

Not far away, Mr Biden will have on hand Senior Adviser Anita Dunn, Communications Director Kate Bedingfield, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Also close is Chief of White House Operations Annie Tomasini.

The Biden administration has laid claim to demographic diversity, and 4 of the 22 individuals identified as having an office on the first or second floor are people of colour: The director of the Domestic Policy Council, Susan Rice, Senior Adviser Cedric Richmond, Deputy Director of the Office of Public Engagement Adrian Saenz – and of course, Vice President Kamala Harris.

Despite how it may look on TV or in the movies, the White House is actually pretty poky. And that can make the issue of geography all the more important.

To be a successful operator you want to have the president’s ear, but not be so constant a presence as to create a falling-out. David Axelrod was eased out of his coveted office in Barack Obama’s White House after one term. By contrast, Karl Rove served as George W Bush’s senior advisor and deputy chief of staff until the final summer of Bush’s second term.

For further proof of why this matters, look no further than the Trump administration. One of the repeated criticisms of the former president was that he listened to the very most recent suggestion from someone he spoke to. A policy could be agreed in the morning only for White House officials to learn on Twitter that the plan had been torn up by the afternoon.

Reince Preibus, who served as Mr Trump’s first chief of staff, notoriously failed to control the number of people pouring in and out of the house and calling the president on his cell phone.

Remember that when Mr Preibus was replaced after less than six months on the job, former Marine general John Kelly told reporters he was not trying to alter the president’s behavior, or stop his tweets.

But he added: “I was not brought to this job to control anything but the flow of information to our president so that he can make the best decisions.”

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