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.

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