Ingredients of a White House Shake-Up: Dash of Bush, Dab of Clinton, and Roll Heads

Adding Podesta and Schiliro is just layering. Like Bush, Obama is averse to change.

US President Barack Obama gives an address during South African former president Nelson Mandela's memorial service at the FNB Stadium (Soccer City) in Johannesburg on December 10, 2013.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
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Ron Fournier
Dec. 11, 2013, 12:32 a.m.

“Mr. Pres­id­ent, I think I need to resign.” In Ju­ly 2003, six months after Pres­id­ent Bush falsely de­clared in his State of the Uni­on ad­dress that Sad­dam Hus­sein had tried to buy yel­low­cake urani­um powder from Africa, Steph­en Had­ley wanted to take the fall. The CIA had told him be­fore the ad­dress that the evid­ence was du­bi­ous, and it was his job to vet the speech.

“Ugh, Had­ley,” Bush said, brush­ing off his deputy na­tion­al se­cur­ity ad­viser. Ac­cord­ing to Peter Baker’s book Days of Fire, Had­ley per­sisted. He ex­plained that the pres­id­ent should ex­pect the highest stand­ards and those who work for him were in­ves­ted with the na­tion­al trust. It was no dis­grace to ac­cept re­spons­ib­il­ity for a mis­take, he told Bush. “In fact, that is ex­actly how the sys­tem should work, and that is what needs to hap­pen here.”

Bush re­fused to ac­cept Had­ley’s resig­na­tion. Sep­ar­ately, he also re­jec­ted Vice Pres­id­ent Dick Cheney’s of­fers — three of them, ac­cord­ing to Baker — to drop off the 2004 reelec­tion tick­et. While the pres­id­ent later fired De­fense Sec­ret­ary Don­ald Rums­feld and At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Al­berto Gonzales for in­ef­fect­ive­ness, he dithered far too long be­fore pulling the trig­ger.  

Read­ing Baker’s book, it struck me that Bush and his suc­cessor, Barack Obama, share an aver­sion to jet­tis­on­ing dead weight. Cast­ing aside loy­al lieu­ten­ants is a sign of weak­ness in their eyes — even when it needs to be done, and es­pe­cially when the chat­ter­ing class de­mands it. This per­son­al­ity quirk leads to a lack of ac­count­ab­il­ity and a delay in fix­ing broken policies. It’s part of what en­snared Bush in Ir­aq and caused him to clum­sily de­fend the gov­ern­ment’s re­sponse to Hur­ricane Kat­ina. 

A pres­id­ent de­serves the best ad­vice, the pub­lic de­mands ac­count­ab­il­ity, and there’s no shame in ad­mit­ting fail­ure.

While there is no com­par­ing a war and a hur­ricane to health care re­form, we’ll see soon if Obama has learned from the past, be­cause Had­ley was right: A pres­id­ent de­serves the best ad­vice, the pub­lic de­mands ac­count­ab­il­ity, and there’s no shame in ad­mit­ting fail­ure. Obama needs to shake up his team over the rol­lout of the Af­ford­able Care Act, a pro­cess so mis­man­aged that a ma­jor­ity of the pub­lic now mis­trusts the pres­id­ent and the White House will al­most cer­tainly fall short of crit­ic­al ACA en­roll­ment tar­gets. In­su­lar­ity, de­cept­ive com­mu­nicata­tions, and a lack of at­ten­tion to de­tail played in­to second-term con­tro­ver­sies bey­ond Obama­care, in­clud­ing is­sues in­volving the IRS and the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency.

Obama so far has taken baby steps. He brought back his former chief con­gres­sion­al lob­by­ist, Phil Schiliro, to help on health care is­sues. Schiliro’s re­turn should bol­ster a White House le­gis­lat­ive-af­fairs team that has drawn pathet­ic re­views from Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans on Cap­it­ol Hill.

The White House will also be­ne­fit from the ad­di­tion of John Podesta, former chief of staff to Pres­id­ent Clin­ton and the founder of the Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress, a lib­er­al pub­lic-policy group that has provided per­son­nel and policy ideas to the ad­min­is­tra­tion. He has agreed to serve a year as a coun­selor to Obama.

But Podesta is no out­sider. In ad­di­tion to his work at CAP, he led Obama’s trans­ition team in 2008, stock­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion with polit­ic­al ap­pointees. So if Obama is go­ing to broaden his circle and em­brace con­struct­ive cri­ti­cism, he’s still got work to do.  

This is no shake-up. It’s a gentle lay­er­ing. White House of­fi­cials in­sist that Podesta’s hir­ing re­af­firms Obama’s sup­port for Chief of Staff Denis Mc­Donough, the one per­son, be­sides Obama, who is ul­ti­mately re­spons­ible for any man­age­ment fail­ures. Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us, who re­portedly mocked Mc­Donough for mi­cro­man­aging the ACA im­ple­ment­a­tion, still has her job — as do oth­ers who fumbled Obama­care and oth­er is­sues.

I wrote last week that Obama needed more than a sac­ri­fi­cial lamb or a couple of new faces. He needs to fire those re­spons­ible and hire people who com­pensate for his weak­nesses, a ruth­less man­age­ment team that will force him to re­main en­gaged in the nitty-gritty of polit­ics and gov­ern­ing.

In­ter­est­ingly, Bush’s pre­de­cessor, Bill Clin­ton, had the op­pos­ite prob­lem. He was too en­gaged in the minu­ti­ae of White House man­age­ment. In The Sur­viv­or, bio­graph­er John Har­ris wrote of the time in 1993 when Clin­ton grew angry at five aides and told White House Deputy Chief of Staff Roy Neel to fire them. “Neel du­ti­fully went about this un­pal­at­able as­sign­ment,” Har­ris wrote. “With­in days, he learned — though not from Clin­ton — that all five people had ap­pealed dir­ectly to the pres­id­ent, who had re­versed the fir­ings.”

Oth­ers wer­en’t so lucky. Clin­ton per­haps went too far in toss­ing aside long­time friends and al­lies. If Obama de­cides to ac­tu­ally shake up his team, maybe that’s the sweet spot — some­where between Bush and Clin­ton.

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