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 Health­ 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 »
Sanders Upsets Clinton in Indiana
33 minutes ago

Despite trailing Hillary Clinton by a significant margin, Bernie Sanders wasn't going the way of Ted Cruz tonight. The Vermont senator upset Clinton in Indiana, with MSNBC calling the race at 9pm. Sanders appears poised to win by a five- or six-point spread.

Ted Cruz Bows Out, Effectively Ceding the Contest to Trump
1 hours ago

And just like that, it's over. Ted Cruz will suspend his presidential campaign after losing badly to Donald Trump in Indiana tonight. "While Cruz had always hedged when asked whether he would quit if he lost Indiana; his campaign had laid a huge bet on the state." John Kasich's campaign has pledged to carry on. “From the beginning, I’ve said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory,” said Cruz. “Tonight, I’m sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed."

Trump Wins Indiana, All but Seals the Nomination
1 hours ago

The Republican establishment's last remaining hope—a contested convention this summer—may have just ended in Indiana, as Donald Trump won a decisive victory over Ted Cruz. Nothing Cruz seemed to have in his corner seemed to help—not a presumptive VP pick in Carly Fiorina, not a midwestern state where he's done well in the past, and not the state's legions of conservatives. Though Trump "won't secure the 1,237 delegates he needs to formally claim the nomination until June, his Indiana triumph makes it almost impossible to stop him. Following his decisive wins in New York and other East Coast states, the Indiana victory could put Trump within 200 delegates of the magic number he needs to clinch the nomination." Cruz, meanwhile, "now faces the agonizing choice of whether to remain in the race, with his attempt to force the party into a contested convention in tatters, or to bow out and cede the party nomination to his political nemesis." The Associated Press, which called the race at 7pm, predicts Trump will win at least 45 delegates.

Inside the AP’s Election Operation
6 hours ago
What’s the Average Household Income of a Trump Voter?
6 hours ago

Seventy-two thousand dollars, according to FiveThirtyEight. That's higher than the national average, as well as the average Clinton or Sanders voter, but lower than the average Kasich voter.