Starting with FDR and moving forward in history, the White House staff has become larger and larger and exerted more control over once-autonomous cabinet departments. A friend of mine who was deputy budget director for JFK related that the White House was still so small in the early 1960s that when there was a policy debate internally, the President would say “Give me his office number” and simply call the key person on the phone and speak to him/her directly with no handlers, advisers, special assistants, policy groups, councils and the like as intermediaries. In contrast, today the Executive Office of the President staff fill multiple, large office buildings around the White House with plans for further expanded offices in the works.
Nixon grew the White House executive offices particularly dramatically in 1970 when he created the Office of Policy Development, but every President since has followed the same route. Some people thought that the Obama White House would depart from Bush’s approach of tight management (famously, when Secretaries met with Karl Rove, it was in Rove’s office), but in fact the President’s team continued in the centralizing direction including creating two new white house offices as another layer between one or two cabinet secretaries and the President (HHS in one case, Energy and EPA in the other).
In the past few decades, many cabinet members have left town frustrated by how little decision-making power they had (former governors such as Tommy Thompson, probably feel this way most often). The current unhappiness in President Obama’s cabinet is therefore familiar.
What “White House types” (irrespective of administration) tend to say is that if you let cabinet members have some autonomy, they will make mistakes. Well, of course they will, they are human. What seems less appreciated is that (1) Recent administrations have underused some truly extraordinary cabinet secretaries and made worse policy as a result and (2) Wiring everything through white house staff increases those individuals’ sometimes disabling exhaustion and leads to many important issues drifting because there isn’t the bandwith to micromanage them.