It was just two weeks ago that I explained why OMB directors in general are seen as good White House chiefs of staff by the presidents they serve.
In a very strong piece in today’s The Washington Post, Ezra Klein explained why one particular former OMB Director — Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels — was never going to be the strong presidential candidate some were saying he would be and is not the savior some in the GOP are looking for.
Ezra’s analysis about Daniels can easily be broadened to OMB directors in general: With very rare exceptions they’re just not right for today’s presidential politics. The top five reasons are:
1. A Very Bad Track Record. OMB directors almost certainly have to take responsibility for a budget situation that got worse…and in many cases much worse…while they were in the job. It may not have been their fault, but it happened on their watch.
Jack Lew, who just left OMB to become Obama’s chief of staff, is the only OMB director since Robert Mayo in 1969 who can say that the budget was balanced while he headed the agency. It’s hard to be convincing that you’ll fix what for many voters is THE hot-button issue when you can be tagged with failing miserably at it the first time.
2. No Friends. Face it: OMB directors have to say “no” to most of the people they deal with. That’s not a great way to get people to support your candidacy.
3. You’re A Geek. As someone who falls into this category, please understand that I say this with the utmost respect: More often than not OMB directors are or become policy nerds who get in the weeds of most decisions. As I said two weeks ago, OMB directors are familiar with the full scope and breadth of everything the federal government does and that would seem to make them ideal candidates for president. But they generally focus more on the micro than the macro. That makes them great staffers to presidents rather than the presidents themselves.
4.Not Great Communicators. You can count on one hand (and maybe just one or two fingers) the OMB directors who have had the ability to connect with mass audiences.
5. Not Known Beyond The Beltway. OK…this is a little strong: Some OMB directors have not been Washington insiders (Anyone else remember Bert Lance?). But even the few that were known outside the beltway were not household names when they got the job and then had to focus their attention and energies on a vary narrow group inside.
Even the former members of Congress who moved to OMB like Leon Panetta (D-CA), Jim Nussle (R-OH), Rob Portman (R-OH) and David Stockman (R-MI) didn’t have much of a national constituency when they took the job and even less of one when they left.