The White House Is Exhausted

The past week has not been kind to Obama. But could it be a turning point for his presidency?

President Obama pauses as he announces the resignation of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki in the briefing room of the White House May 30, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
George E. Condon Jr.
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George E. Condon Jr.
May 30, 2014, 12:04 p.m.

Day 1,956 of his pres­id­ency was not too kind to Pres­id­ent Obama. Hav­ing to an­nounce with­in a four-hour span that he had lost both an em­battled Cab­in­et sec­ret­ary and his chief spokes­man, Obama looked Fri­day like a man gamely try­ing to get a stalled ad­min­is­tra­tion back on track.

He entered the week still stuck with low ap­prov­al rat­ings and fa­cing fierce cri­ti­cism of his policies both at home and abroad. On Wed­nes­day, he tried to chart a new course in­ter­na­tion­ally with a West Point speech set­ting out a new for­eign policy. On Thursday, he dealt with wide­spread cri­ti­cism of the speech. On Fri­day, he tried to dig him­self out of a troub­ling Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion scan­dal by jet­tis­on­ing VA Sec­ret­ary Eric Shin­seki, a man he thought was be­ing un­fairly blamed for the prob­lems. Then he ac­cep­ted the resig­na­tion of press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney, the long­time pub­lic face of his White House.

It is a cliché to note the aging of our pres­id­ents, to count the gray hairs sprout­ing with each passing day in the Oval Of­fice. But Obama does look weary. And he is at a point in his ad­min­is­tra­tion when his agenda seems tired and many of his ap­pointees are ex­hausted. In that re­gard, he is no dif­fer­ent than every second-term pres­id­ent since World War II. For all of them, the sixth year was troubled and filled with ad­min­is­tra­tion scan­dals, polit­ic­al chal­lenges and ex­ec­ut­ive turnover.

A second-term pres­id­ent has to fig­ure out how to gov­ern ef­fect­ively without his ori­gin­al band of hardy loy­al­ists. Most of them have fled gov­ern­ment at this point. When Obama looks around his White House these days, he sees Valer­ie Jar­rett and Dan Pfeif­fer and only a hand­ful of oth­er aides who were with him on that fri­gid day in 2007 in Spring­field when he an­nounced his long-shot can­did­acy. Only three of Obama’s ori­gin­al 16 Cab­in­et of­ficers re­main — Eric Hold­er at Justice, Tom Vil­sack at Ag­ri­cul­ture, and Arne Duncan at Edu­ca­tion. He is on his fourth budget dir­ect­or, his fifth chief of staff, and, soon, his third press sec­ret­ary.

The turnover at press sec­ret­ary is the least sur­pris­ing. Few ap­pre­ci­ate what a tough job that is. Marlin Fitzwa­ter, who served Ron­ald Re­agan and George H.W. Bush, said that the biggest shock to him when he be­came press sec­ret­ary was how hard he had to dig to get the facts and to make sure what he said pub­licly was ac­cur­ate. As Car­ney was later to learn, most of that work is done off-cam­era, fight­ing to be in­cluded in the in­ner circle. The two-term pres­id­ents since Dwight Eis­en­hower have all worn out their press sec­ret­ar­ies. Bill Clin­ton and George W. Bush each had four, and Ron­ald Re­agan had three. Lyn­don John­son, who served less than two full terms, had four.

Each had to struggle with the real­ity that the pub­lic starts to tune out a pres­id­ent in his second term. This is a highly per­son­al of­fice. A pres­id­ent is the only politi­cian whom voters, in ef­fect, in­vite in­to their homes and watch on tele­vi­sion every night. But in a sixth year, people tend to be­lieve they have pretty much heard it all from the pres­id­ent and about all they hear seems to be bad news.

In mak­ing his an­nounce­ments on Shin­seki and Car­ney, the pres­id­ent did all the things ex­pec­ted of him in the cir­cum­stances, pro­ject­ing de­term­in­a­tion and even smil­ing bravely. But what he didn’t do was sig­nal con­vin­cingly that he knows how to provide a way for­ward for the 966 days he has left in the White House. How he re­sponds now will de­term­ine wheth­er this week is re­garded as a low point or a crit­ic­al turn­ing point for his pres­id­ency.

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