A presidential chief strategist is a position that most Americans don't often think about. But all American presidents have had one and the fact that we know some of their names and not others is proof that the role is one of the most make-or-break gigs in the White House. President-elect Donald Trump's choice for chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is controversial, so now seems like as good a time as any to figure out what a chief strategist does. It's easy to conflate the chief of staff and the chief strategist, but they are two very different positions. The chief of staff is a more official position. They are the president's right hand man (or woman, if we ever get there). Think House of Cards' Doug Stamper or Scandal's Cyrus Beene.
The chief strategist, or advisor, is usually lesser known. They're the guys in the background of the picture staring at their phone, usually. They aren't approved by Congress, like other Cabinet positions are (although the chief of staff isn't either). That's why these are two of the easiest positions to fill: they don't need congressional approval, usually come from within the president-elect's inner circle, and have weathered the long campaign cycle.
The chief strategist is like BFF-In-Chief, although the chief of staff has a more visible, official role. Let's put it this way: the chief of staff is the sister you give the "maid of honor" role to at your wedding, when, really, you know your best friend from forever will take over organizing the bridal shower.
The chief of staff and strategist both know what the candidate really said to Vladimir Putin on the phone as well as what kind of scotch (or tomato juice, in Trump's case) they like to unwind with. But the chief strategist is the guy the president sits down with once the chief of staff leaves the room (depending on the relationship between all three, obviously) and gets down to business with. The chief strategist is the guy that gets to really dish with the president, in other words.
Obama went through a few chiefs of staff, and even the biggest political junkie might not be able to pick his current chief of staff or strategist out of a line-up. But at the very beginning, David Axelrod was his chief advisor after winning the 2008 election as his campaign manager. (I will personally Venmo you $10 if you can name Obama's chief strategist off the top of your head. I'll know if you Google it. No, I won't, but still.)
Or how about this, if you can turn the dial back far enough: Karl Rove was George W. Bush's chief strategist before later becoming deputy chief of staff. No? Nothing? Rove was credited with guiding George W. Bush on almost all matters, so much so that The Atlantic called it "The Rove Presidency."
Bush was often, like Trump is now, criticized for not knowing much about presidential leadership. It's likely that any chief strategist in the Trump White House will have the same Godfather-like role. (Of course, I jest, it's not nefarious. Unless it is? Does anyone else know what's going on?)
This is exactly why chief strategist is one of the most important positions in an administration. They stay sort of out of the spotlight but are the ones sitting across from the president on those nice Oval Office couches at 2 a.m., strategizing about how to get stuff done. And most voters know nothing about them.
A chief of strategy gets a security clearance, though, so they have access to everything the president does. For anyone worried about Bannon taking over the Oval Office, it's possible that he might not be able to get one and would have to take another role in the administration.
The background check for a security clearance looks at arrest records and political affiliations. Bannon has been, as CNN Money's Tom Kludt puts it, "celebrated by American white nationalists, feted by Europe’s ultra-right, and charged with choking his wife." Depending on who's running things over at the State Department, Bannon could be called into question at the security clearance juncture and then Trump would have to appoint another person. Who that would be at this point is anyone's guess. Worries about Bannon's security clearance might be why the Trump transition team seems to have a revolving door of faces and names and what Democrat leaders like Harry Reid are going for in their protests.
But that all remains to be seen at this point. The chief strategist is an important role and they are usually tasked with working out the nitty gritty details of day-to-day politics to achieve the overall goals of an administration. It's a big job to take on and it's important to know who gets to get comfortable in the Oval Office.