Obama's Second Term
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|Justin Sink||October 12th 2014|
President Obama needs to shake up his White House staff to give new life to his presidency, top Democratic strategists and former White House veterans say.
They argue Obama needs an infusion of talent if he hopes to recover over his final two years in office.
One prominent party strategist said Obama “should take a flamethrower to his office.”
“He needs dramatic change — it’s not even a debatable point,” the strategist said. “The general consensus that the president is surrounded by people who do him more harm than good because they are more focused on pleasing him than they are challenging him or proposing a different course.”
Obama has endured a brutal two years since his reelection, with a legislative agenda stalled and his approval ratings in the dumps.
On the midterm campaign trail, he’s mostly been persona non grata, with Democratic candidates wishing he’d stay away.
In Washington, he suffered the indignities last week of a former top aide — ex CIA chief and Pentagon Secretary Leon Panetta — echoing GOP talking points by publicly questioning his leadership and managing style.
It has all increased speculation in Washington that there will be changes after the midterms, something even the White House this week acknowledged is a Washington hallmark.
Allies of Obama say the turnover would be welcome news, providing a fresh set of eyes to the problems facing the White House.
And they say the loyal staffers with Obama are inevitably exhausted after two campaigns and six tough years of governing.
Moreover, they’re often true believers — longtime Obama devotees who are less likely to challenge and push the president, and have more buy-in on a strategy that has battered the president’s poll numbers.
“When he lost Plouffe, when Axelrod left, there aren’t too many people who can walk into the Oval Office and shut the door,” said Democratic strategist Peter Fenn, referring to former Obama strategists David Plouffe and David Axelrod.
“And those guys could, they could speak really frankly to him,” Fenn said. “How does he put people in the White House with serious political chops?
Jim Manley, a former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said a shakeup was “probably something they’re going to have to consider for a lot of different reasons.”
Still, observers said change would only work if new voices can penetrate Obama’s inner circle.
Chief of staff Denis McDonough, for instance, is well liked both in the West Wing and on Capitol Hill, and allies say there is little chance he’d be asked to leave. But so far he’s proven unable to repair the relationship between the White House and Capitol Hill, despite years serving as a top Senate staffer.
“Who understood the hill better than Denis?” said Anita McBride, the former chief of staff to Laura Bush and an resident at American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies. “Who understood the hill better than Joe Biden? But all that seems to have broken down because the president seems to be unwilling to make that outreach himself.”
Insiders complain that with rare exceptions — like longtime Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett — it seems few are able to compel Obama to leave his comfort zone.
“You could bring in the Speaker of the House as chief of staff, it’s not going to change anything if the president doesn’t invest personally,” McBride added.
Observers see a few key areas where new staff could provide a measurable impact.
The first is bringing in more legacy-builders — old Washington hats who know how to use the levers of government to make progress even as Obama approaches lame-duck status. Ideally, those staffers would have enough credibility to challenge the insular thinking of Team Obama and the experience to navigate the administration down more fruitful paths.
White House counselor John Podesta, the former chief of staff to Bill Clinton who has already said he’s leaving by the end of the year, was frequently cited as a model.
“Convince John to stay,” said Fenn. “And if not, move someone over who can work on environmental regulations and global warming projects, and set the last-two-year agenda. Obama is not a president who wants to just lay back and let events wash over him.”
Multiple Democrats said they were concerned about the president’s national security team, which has faced a relentless stream of crises since the revelation of the National Security Agency’s top-secret surveillance program last summer.
“Their foreign policy initiatives are falling short, so it may be the time,” Manley said.
While Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel seem unlikely to depart, many are wondering if National Security Adviser Susan Rice – who was passed over for the job at State amid the controversy over her comments on Benghazi – might leave. Caitlin Hayden, the National Security Council’s longtime spokesperson, announced her departure from the administration this week.
But shaking up the foreign policy staff also carries risk.
“Particularly at the higher levels, it’s not just about the relationships they have here in the U.S., it’s the relationships they have around the world,” Democratic strategist Karen Finney said. “And that’s a place I don’t think you want to bring in new people at this point. There’s an element of trust as you build the coalition against ISIS.”
A Senate takeover by Republicans could also lead the White House to staff up its legal team, while drawing attention to the White House’s shaky legislative affairs efforts.
“There’s always been a challenge there, and based on the outcome of the election it’s either going to be more challenging or continue to be as challenging as it has is,” Finney said. “Someone with different relationships – sometimes that can really help.”
The other question is whether Obama, who is notoriously loyal — and especially to those closest to him — will want to see major turnover.
The possibility was hinted at earlier this week when White House press secretary Josh Earnest acknowledged it was “customary after midterm elections for members of an administration to pursue other opportunities.”
“That’s probably been true since George Washington’s second midterm election that some members of his staff left,” Earnest said.
But Obama has proven “very slow to get rid of people regardless of the circumstances,” Brookings Institution presidential scholar John Hudak said.
“For a president so disinterested in management, it would be surprising to me if he suddenly became a proponent of better staffing and better management at the appointee level,” Hudak said. “If staffers close to the president haven’t been ousted yet, they’re likely not going anywhere unless there is additional policy failures.”
Justin Sink writes for The Hill, from where this article is adapted.