White House

What a Real White House Shake-Up Looks Like

Obama needs to ‘fire himself’: Hire truth-tellers, business leaders, and Republicans to change his ways.

US President Barack Obama speaks about immigration reform in the East Room of the White House in Washington, DC, October 24, 2013. The President renewed his call for Congress to pass sweeping immigration reform.
National Journal
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Ron Fournier
Oct. 23, 2014, 6:33 a.m.

It says here that Denis Mc­Donough is ask­ing top White House aides wheth­er they plan to serve out the re­mainder of Pres­id­ent Obama’s term. They should all say “no.”

The pres­id­ent’s ap­prov­al rat­ings are un­der­wa­ter, his cred­ib­il­ity is shot, he’s polit­ic­ally tox­ic to Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates, his lead­er­ship is a bi­par­tis­an source of scorn, and a vast ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans think the coun­try is ca­reen­ing down the wrong track. If Obama has any hope of re­build­ing his leg­acy, he needs to dis­mantle his staff. “Thank you for your ser­vice, every­body, now go.”

He can’t just tinker, which is what Mc­Donough seems to have in mind. “The pro­cess, which began in re­cent weeks, is fo­cused on keep­ing people at the White House,” Politico re­por­ted, “with the ex­pect­a­tion among seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials that who­ever’s in place next sum­mer would re­main through the end of the pres­id­ency.”

Dear God, no.  In the past 18 months, I’ve urged the pres­id­ent to clean house again and again and again.

His­tory also sug­gests that there are two types of White House shake-ups. The first is mostly cos­met­ic and is aimed at send­ing a sig­nal that the pres­id­ent is ser­i­ous. He fires some­body, any­body, as a sac­ri­fi­cial lamb. The second is deep cleans­ing—that rare oc­ca­sion when a pres­id­ent re­builds his team to change him­self.

The lat­ter is what Obama must do.

Bill Clin­ton ef­fect­ively fired him­self after voters re­pu­di­ated his pres­id­ency in the 1994 midterm elec­tions, giv­ing Re­pub­lic­ans con­trol of Con­gress for the first time in dec­ades. He asked his budget dir­ect­or, Le­on Pan­etta, what went wrong. You and your White House lack dis­cip­line, Pan­etta replied.

For his sake and ours, Obama must fire him­self. He needs to re­cog­nize that, for all of his strengths as a per­son and a politi­cian, he’s shown an as­ton­ish­ing lack of growth on the job. Obama won’t evolve un­less he re­places en­a­blers with truth-tell­ers—ad­visers un­afraid of telling the pres­id­ent he’s wrong.

He should start, of course, with Mc­Donough. A sol­id pub­lic ser­vant, Mc­Donough has the mis­for­tune of serving a pres­id­ent who doesn’t un­der­stand the im­port­ance of a chain of com­mand, the per­ils of backchan­nels, the value of re­la­tion­ships, or the in­her­ent powers of the pres­id­ency. Obama should hire and em­power a CEO power­house.

Who might that be? Pan­etta, for one—and what a mes­sage of hu­mil­ity it would be: open­ing the in­ner circle to a Ju­das who ex­posed the em­per­or’s na­ked­ness. More con­ven­tion­al, Obama could ask any one of the ac­com­plished lead­ers already work­ing in the White House to trans­form the staff and the pres­id­ent him­self: John Podesta (ad­viser), Jef­frey Zi­ents (chief eco­nom­ic ad­viser), and Ron Klain (Ebola czar).

A fresh­er face: Neera Tanden, pres­id­ent and CEO of a lib­er­al think tank with close ties to the White House (and to Hil­lary Clin­ton, which could get com­plic­ated). Wickedly smart and proudly pro­gress­ive, Tanden knows the in­ter­sec­tion of polit­ics and policy as well as any­body.

Or the pres­id­ent could em­brace his bi­par­tis­an prom­ise and find a Re­pub­lic­an who could be trus­ted to serve a Demo­crat. Three ex­amples: Andy Card and Josh Bolten, chiefs of staff for Pres­id­ent George W. Bush, or Colin Pow­ell.

Obama’s com­mu­nic­a­tions team is a dis­aster. He could do bet­ter by dip­ping in­to the Clin­ton era for a battle-tested pro like former press sec­ret­ary Mike Mc­Curry. Or Dee Dee My­ers, whose stra­tegic savvy and com­mu­nic­a­tion skills were un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated by the men around Clin­ton.

Obama could tap a street fight­er, some­body like aca­dem­ic-turned-con­sult­ant Chris Kofinis, who has taken on Wal-Mart (built a grass­roots uni­on-backed cam­paign) and the Demo­crat­ic es­tab­lish­ment (helped draft Wes Clark in­to the 2004 cam­paign), and who knows Cap­it­ol Hill (served as chief of staff to Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat).

For new mes­sage lead­er­ship, Obama also should look out­side polit­ics (ex­ample: Star­bucks ex­ec­ut­ive Kris Eng­skov was a ju­ni­or me­dia aide in the Clin­ton White House) and out­side his party (Re­pub­lic­ans de­voted as much to ser­vice as to ideo­logy do ex­ist, people like Rich Ga­len and Dan Bart­lett).   

At the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Coun­cil, Susan Rice’s vi­ab­il­ity as a pub­lic fig­ure has been com­prom­ised by er­ro­neous and clumsy state­ments. She also bears re­spons­ib­il­ity for Obama’s dither­ing and lack of stra­tegic vis­ion, even if those prob­lems stem from the pres­id­ent’s un­will­ing­ness to heed ad­vice. Obama could re­vive Dav­id Pet­raeus’s dis­tin­guished pub­lic-ser­vice ca­reer after an ex­tramar­it­al af­fair cost him his job atop the CIA. There are many oth­er qual­i­fied can­did­ates who don’t have Rice’s bag­gage.

What of the two ad­visers without a spe­cif­ic port­fo­lio: Valer­ie Jar­rett and Dan Pfeif­fer? They’re blindly loy­al to Obama, gather­ers of power, shiel­ded from blame, and ac­count­able to nobody but the pres­id­ent. Their biggest ad­mirers ac­know­ledge privately that Obama won’t change course un­less Jar­rett and Pfeif­fer change work ad­dresses.

Two notes: First, none of these po­ten­tial re­place­ments knew I was drop­ping their names; in­deed, most of them are prob­ably hor­ri­fied by the thought of leav­ing more-com­fort­able jobs. Second, nobody from the White House con­trib­uted can­did­ates for this column.

These names are merely ex­amples of how far Obama could cast his net, and how much he could im­prove his per­form­ance as a lead­er, if he would open his mind to it.

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