Why Obama Won’t Fire Sebelius

The reason has as much to do with their personal relationship as politics: one built on loyalty, Kansas roots — and basketball.

President Barack Obama smiles while making a statement with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius while making a statement in the briefing room at the White House on February 10, 2012 in Washington, DC. President Obama announced a reversal of his administration's health care rule requiring religious employers to provide women free access to contraception.
National Journal
Matthew Cooper
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Matthew Cooper
Oct. 29, 2013, 4 p.m.

With the dis­astrous Health­Care.gov rol­lout, you would think that if Pres­id­ent Obama had not fired Kath­leen Se­beli­us by now, he would have at least ser­i­ously con­sidered it. And you’d think she might have read­ied a resig­na­tion let­ter or even offered to quit. But those close to the White House and Se­beli­us say there has been no such come-to-Je­sus mo­ment between the two and they don’t see one hap­pen­ing any­time soon. In short, Se­beli­us is stay­ing.

Spec­u­la­tion has swirled since the sput­ter­ing start of Obama­care that the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices sec­ret­ary would take the fall — and that the only reas­on the pres­id­ent hadn’t yet swung the ax was a prag­mat­ic one: Any re­place­ment could be held up by Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans as the health care law is re-lit­ig­ated ad in­fin­itum. But that isn’t the case. Those close to the pres­id­ent say that Obama hasn’t even thought about dump­ing Se­beli­us. “He is in­ter­ested in solu­tions, not scape­goats,” says top ad­visor Valer­ie Jar­rett.

Chalk part of it up to the hands-off ap­proach Obama takes when it comes to his Cab­in­et and a self-pre­serving one favored by Se­beli­us’s. Throw in a mu­tu­al af­fec­tion that’s just strong enough to keep them bound to­geth­er, mix in their shared love of bas­ket­ball, and it’s a for­mula for sur­viv­al. “She has re­minded the pres­id­ent that she made the varsity team in col­lege,” jokes Se­beli­us’s broth­er Don­ald Gil­ligan.

A pas­sion for hoops is just one mys­tic chord between the two lanky pols. A deep­er one lies in El Dor­ado — the Kan­sas town, not the myth­ic­al gold king­dom.

At the end of Janu­ary 2008, when Obama and Hil­lary Clin­ton were fight­ing it out for en­dorse­ments, al­tern­at­ing bruis­ing wins and losses in New Hamp­shire and Iowa and Nevada, Se­beli­us, then the Kan­sas gov­ernor, took a leap and en­dorsed Obama in El Dor­ado, not far from Wichita. The en­dorse­ment mattered. It came from a wo­man, a New Demo­crat, and a pant­suit-fa­vor­ing gov­ernor who wasn’t en­dors­ing Hil­lary. At the time, Se­beli­us en­joyed a high pro­file as an up-and-com­ing Dem who had de­livered the re­sponse to George W. Bush’s State of the Uni­on speech just a day earli­er.

El Dor­ado was where Obama’s ma­ter­nal grand­fath­er had been raised, with the ho­met­own of his grand­moth­er just up the road. “I wasn’t there that day,” re­calls Jar­rett. “But I’ve heard a lot about it. It re­flec­ted on her strength and in­de­pend­ence.” “They’ve only got­ten closer since then,” says Dan Glick­man, the long­time Demo­crat­ic con­gress­man from Wichita who has a unique vant­age point hav­ing served as Ag­ri­cul­ture sec­ret­ary and know­ing both.

In­deed, the ties between the two have grown. Se­beli­us is not one of the guys like Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors and Chief of Staff Denis Mc­Donough or a so­cial friend like Susan Rice. But the pres­id­ent has been im­pressed both by Se­beli­us’s per­sist­ence and her loy­alty and, hard as it is to ima­gine now, her polit­ic­al smarts as an­oth­er Mid­west­ern­er who’s won statewide. It’s easy to for­get that the road to Obama­care’s pas­sage was bru­tal and there was no more en­thu­si­ast­ic cheer­lead­er than Se­beli­us — whose mod­er­ate Kan­sas cre­den­tials helped sell the plan. Be­fore that, she stepped in­to the HHS slot without fuss when Sen. Tom Daschle’s nom­in­a­tion faltered be­fore it began.

Se­beli­us’s no-drama style matched Obama’s own. Obama ap­pre­ci­ated Se­beli­us be­ing will­ing to take the fall on the morn­ing-after pill for minors. Even though it meant a vir­tu­ally un­pre­ced­en­ted over­rul­ing of a Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion reg­u­la­tion, Se­beli­us in­ter­vened to say the abor­ti­fa­cient could not be sold dir­ectly to minors — this after Obama had ex­pressed the con­cern of hav­ing two young daugh­ters un­der 17. And in the con­struc­tion of a health care law, Obama thought Se­beli­us, a former in­sur­ance com­mis­sion­er, deftly brought that in­dustry in­to the fold.

In­deed, Se­beli­us is show­ing no in­dic­a­tion of be­ing will­ing to fall on her sword. She has not drawn up a resig­na­tion let­ter, in­siders tell Na­tion­al Journ­al. Her spokespeople take a hard pub­lic line: “The sec­ret­ary works for the pres­id­ent and the Amer­ic­an people,” says HHS spokes­per­son Joanne Peters. “It is not­able that many of the people call­ing on her to resign have also tried to re­peal the law.”

Se­beli­us’s de­term­in­a­tion to stay in the Cab­in­et, at least for now, owes something to her his­tory, as well.

Se­beli­us, like George W. Bush, is a politi­cian able to tout tri­umphs her fath­er could not. Jack Gil­ligan was revered by Ohio Demo­crats but he was a one-term con­gress­man and a one-term gov­ernor whose sup­port of a tax hike led him to lose even in the 1974 post-Wa­ter­gate Demo­crat­ic land­slide. By con­trast, his daugh­ter was reelec­ted gov­ernor of a red state and has nev­er lost an elec­tion. Gil­ligan had planned to run for pres­id­ent like most Ohio gov­ernors but was pummeled by a tax hike be­fore he had the chance. Se­beli­us was vet­ted twice for vice pres­id­ent — by John Kerry and Obama — and, at least un­til now, has nev­er wholly giv­en up be­ing on a na­tion­al tick­et.

If Se­beli­us is dug in, Obama has no ob­jec­tions. It’s a trait: This pres­id­ent has a pro­found un­will­ing­ness to chew out sec­ret­ar­ies when he thinks it’s mere polit­ics. “It’s not Obama’s thing,” says a former as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary in the Obama Cab­in­et. “You nev­er seen him fire any­one. They [i.e. the White House staff] kind of go dark for awhile [when they’re up­set] and then move on.” Dur­ing the Solyn­dra mess Obama res­isted calls to re­place Steven Chu as En­ergy sec­ret­ary. After the BP oil spill he nev­er ripped in­to In­teri­or Sec­ret­ary Ken Salaz­ar even though the Min­er­als Man­age­ment Ser­vice, which reg­u­lated oil drilling, was un­der his eyes. Trans­port­a­tion Sec­ret­ary Ray La­Hood was nev­er chewed out for the Cash for Clunkers pro­gram. And Eric Hold­er has nev­er been at risk.

Be­cause the polit­ics of the Sen­ate make it hard to fire Se­beli­us, Demo­crats aren’t call­ing for her head. They know she’s there for the dur­a­tion. “There is no way that [her re­place­ment] could get out of the Sen­ate,” says one former Demo­crat­ic sen­at­or. “She’s sol­id. She’s not go­ing any­where.”

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