Presidents and Cabinets

President Lincoln held Cabinet meetings on Tuesdays and Fridays. These meetings were informal gatherings of equals with no formal structure or assigned seats. The President, however, preferred to deal with matters directly with individual members rather than have discussions with the full group.

Lincoln was deeply involved in the day-to-day affairs of the War Department. According to the diary of Gideon Welles, the president went to the War Department three to four times per day to look over communications in the telegraph office. Lincoln was known for his deliberative style, patiently listening to what his Cabinet members had to say before making a decision.

President Obama did not convene frequent Cabinet meetings during his first term. The meeting held in July 2012 was only the eighteenth. Obama does, however, hold daily meetings with White House advisors in which they discuss specific policies. The president reportedly prefers to understand problems with a high degree of detail. Some have criticized him for micromanaging his staff.

Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan are considered to be the classic examples of delegators. Both brought a broad, bold vision of the role of government to the White House, and each relied heavily upon staff, executive agencies, and cabinet heads to implement their policies. Not coincidentally, both were largely successful in advancing their agendas, though at opposite ends of the political spectrum. In the first two years of his presidency, George W. Bush had exhibited many of the leadership traits of Reagan and Roosevelt.

Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter were known as micromanagers. As a former Senate majority leader, Johnson took an unusually active role in Congressional affairs, and was fond of monitoring the minutiae of the legislative process. He took a similar approach to managing the Vietnam War, picking many of the bombing targets himself during late-night strategy sessions with his generals.

Although Jimmy Carter campaigned as an outsider to the political system (having served one term as the governor of Georgia), he quickly developed a reputation as a “policy wonk” and micromanager. He was faulted for lacking the grand vision of previous presidents, and for obsessing over the administrative details of the office at the expense of seeing the big picture. It was reported that Carter once took time to resolve a scheduling dispute between staffers over the use of the White House tennis courts.

Richard Nixon’s leadership style has been described as “keeping his own counsel.” The thirty-seventh president had few advisors that he trusted, and rarely sought out dissenting opinions or advice from others. It is believed that Nixon’s mistrust of virtually everyone around him contributed to his downfall following the Watergate break-in.