Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Opinion
Jonathan Bernstein

Judging John Kelly

He took an impossible job, and wound up as a failure.

John Kelly aspired to manage the staff, not the president. That was the wrong approach.

John Kelly aspired to manage the staff, not the president. That was the wrong approach.

Photographer: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

Changing the chief of staff can sometimes make all the difference. Bill Clinton’s honeymoon, previously the worst in the modern era, gave way to a well-functioning White House once Leon Panetta took over. Ronald Reagan’s second term was in disarray until he brought in Howard Baker. Clinton and Reagan didn’t change, but their reputation and image certainly did. Washington could have dismissed them as in over their heads; instead they emerged (or, in Reagan’s case, re-emerged) as master politicians. That could have happened for Donald Trump, too, but by any normal reckoning, John Kelly’s tenure as White House chief of staff, which started off in a fairly promising direction, has wound up as an almost complete failure.

What Kelly needed to do was to professionalize the White House in spite of a president who resists professionalization. Specifically, that meant a few important tasks: