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.”
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.