Fire Your Team, Mr. President

A White House shake-up can’t stop with a sacrificial lamb. Obama needs to change the people around him to change how he governs.

Obama: Numbers are bleak.
National Journal
Ron Fournier
Dec. 2, 2013, 5:28 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama needs to fire him­self. Not lit­er­ally, of course, but prac­tic­ally: He needs to shake up his team so thor­oughly that the new blood im­poses change on how he man­ages the fed­er­al bur­eau­cracy and leads.

A series of self-in­flic­ted wounds dur­ing his fifth year in of­fice, capped by the botched launch of the Af­ford­able Care Act, have Amer­ic­ans ques­tion­ing the pres­id­ent’s com­pet­ence and cred­ib­il­ity. His­tory sug­gests that second-term pres­id­ents rarely re­cov­er after their ap­prov­al rat­ings fall as much as Obama’s have this year.

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.

Clin­ton fired his chief of staff, child­hood pal Mack McLarty, and re­placed him with Pan­etta, who im­posed or­der upon White House of­fi­cials and the pres­id­ent they served. At sep­ar­ate times, Clin­ton also hired Re­pub­lic­ans Dav­id Ger­gen and Dick Mor­ris to help change his ap­proach to gov­ern­ing and cam­paign­ing.

Ron­ald Re­agan’s second term was mired in the Ir­an-Con­tra scan­dal when he fired Chief of Staff Don­ald Regan, who was ac­cused by fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans of cre­at­ing a White House so in­su­lar that it was called an im­per­i­al pres­id­ency. His re­place­ment was Howard Baker, who en­cour­aged the pres­id­ent to listen to crit­ics and be more en­gaged. “I think Re­agan fun­da­ment­ally knew the im­port­ance of reach­ing out and that he’d be­come cloistered in the years of Don Regan,” said Ken Duber­stein, who came in with Baker and later re­placed him as chief of staff.

Both Clin­ton and Re­agan re­boun­ded from their nadirs. While time is pre­cious, Obama can still re­cov­er from this low­est point in his pres­id­ency, but only if he changes him­self along with his staff.

“It’s not enough for Obama to say ‘mis­takes were made,’ ” said John Baick, a pro­fess­or of Amer­ic­an his­tory at West­ern New Eng­land Uni­versity in Spring­field, Mass. “He needs to say, ‘I’m the one mak­ing the mis­takes; I’ve cre­ated a sys­tem that doesn’t al­low neg­at­ive stuff to flow up. I’m chan­ging me.’ “

Bob McGow­an, a pro­fess­or of busi­ness-gov­ern­ment re­la­tions and cor­por­ate strategy at the Uni­versity of Den­ver, said Obama should look to Hew­lett-Pack­ard and GE as ex­amples of how an in­sti­tu­tion can change its cul­ture by chan­ging its struc­ture. “You don’t want take a chain­saw and start hack­ing people right and left, but the time is run­ning out of the hour glass,” McGow­an said. “If he’s go­ing to do something, he has to start soon.”

Duber­stein agreed. “There comes a time in every ad­min­is­tra­tion where people are worn out and tired and need new en­ergy, and Obama must take ad­vant­age of the op­por­tun­ity, not as much in the sense of fir­ing some­body, but in the sense of bring­ing fresh air in­to the White House.”

The Af­ford­able Care Act fiasco un­der­scores the need for a sig­ni­fic­ant over­haul. Des­pite three years to pre­pare, the Health­Care.gov web­site didn’t work upon launch, and the pres­id­ent misled mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans by prom­ising dur­ing his reelec­tion cam­paign that they could keep their in­sur­ance plans and their doc­tors. As The New York Times re­por­ted Sunday, the story of how Obama’s team re­spon­ded to the fail­ures “re­veals an in­su­lar White House that did not ini­tially ap­pre­ci­ate the mag­nitude of its self-in­flic­ted wounds, and sought help from trus­ted in­siders as it scrambled to pro­tect Mr. Obama’s im­age.”

That de­scrip­tion is a damning in­dict­ment that could be ap­plied broadly to the Obama years. For all his strengths, Obama is a private, al­most cloistered, politi­cian sur­roun­ded by fawn­ing aides who don’t un­der­stand why any­body would ob­ject to his policies; thus they are of­ten caught flat-footed by crit­ics. They of­ten put polit­ic­al tac­tics ahead of gov­ern­ing, pro­tect­ing the pres­id­ent’s im­age with nar­row-minded zeal.  

Obama him­self has no pa­tience for the nitty-gritty of polit­ics and gov­ernance, which means he’s both loath to build bi­par­tis­an re­la­tion­ships out­side the White House and un­likely to dir­ectly man­age a pro­ject, even one as im­port­ant as Obama­care.

“I think it’s ter­ribly mis­man­aged,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said of the health care law. A Demo­crat who sup­ports Obama, Rendell said on MS­N­BC’s Morn­ing Joe that had he been pres­id­ent, the web­site would have been tested re­peatedly be­fore launch­ing “and the tests would have been done in front of me.”

That’s not Obama’s style. So he needs to hire people who will help him em­path­ize with his crit­ics, build sig­ni­fic­ant re­la­tion­ships, and over­see a sprawl­ing bur­eau­cracy that is crit­ic­al to the fu­ture of the Demo­crat­ic Party. He needs a ruth­less man­age­ment team that will force him to be en­gaged.

Obama could turn to vet­er­an Demo­crats with enough in­de­pend­ence and cour­age to tell him flatly when he’s wrong. People like former Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Tom Daschle, former Sen. and long­time Kennedy aide Paul Kirk and Rendell. He could be true to his 2008 prom­ise and go bi­par­tis­an with mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans like Colin Pow­ell or Ger­gen.

Or he could shred the in­su­lar­ity shroud by hir­ing some­body out­side of polit­ics, per­haps a busi­ness lead­er. “Rather than bring in some­body who teaches at the Kennedy School,” Baick said, “bring in some­body who would teach at Whar­ton.”

Some of Obama’s closest ad­visers sug­gest heads will roll. Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­ret­ary Kath­leen Se­beli­us didn’t help her­self by ac­cus­ing White House Chief of Staff Denis Mc­Donough of mi­cro­man­aging the rol­lout. Ac­cord­ing to The Times, she mocked his “count­down cal­en­dar.”

“I think they’re go­ing to have to hold some­body ac­count­able for the botched rol­lout and the web­site not work­ing—some­body at HHS or a group of people,” former Obama press sec­ret­ary Robert Gibbs said last month. “I think if this were to hap­pen in the private sec­tor, some­body would have prob­ably already lost their job, and I think the only way to re­store ul­ti­mate con­fid­ence in go­ing for­ward is to make sure that who­ever was in charge of this isn’t in charge of the long-term health care plan.”

Who­ever was in charge. No doubt Se­beli­us, Mc­Donough, and oth­ers must an­swer to the pres­id­ent, but only one per­son an­swers to the pub­lic. Obama must change more than his staff. He must trans­form him­self.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4600) }}

What We're Following See More »
‘PULLING A TRUMP’
GOP Budget Chiefs Won’t Invite Administration to Testify
21 hours ago
THE DETAILS

The administration will release its 2017 budget blueprint tomorrow, but the House and Senate budget committees won’t be inviting anyone from the White House to come talk about it. “The chairmen of the House and Senate Budget committees released a joint statement saying it simply wasn’t worth their time” to hear from OMB Director Shaun Donovan. Accusing the members of pulling a “Donald Trump,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the move “raises some questions about how confident they are about the kinds of arguments that they could make.”

Source:
A DARK CLOUD OVER TRUMP?
Snowstorm Could Impact Primary Turnout
17 hours ago
THE LATEST

A snowstorm is supposed to hit New Hampshire today and “linger into Primary Tuesday.” GOP consultant Ron Kaufman said lower turnout should help candidates who have spent a lot of time in the state tending to retail politicking. Donald Trump “has acknowledged that he needs to step up his ground-game, and a heavy snowfall could depress his figures relative to more organized candidates.”

Source:
IN CASE OF EMERGENCY
A Shake-Up in the Offing in the Clinton Camp?
12 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Anticipating a primary loss in New Hampshire on Tuesday, Hillary and Bill Clinton “are considering staffing and strategy changes” to their campaign. Sources tell Politico that the Clintons are likely to layer over top officials with experienced talent, rather than fire their staff en masse.

Source:
×