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.
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.

What We're Following See More »
“CLINTON MUST BECOME THE NEXT PRESIDENT”
Bernie Sanders Seeks to Unite the Party
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Instead of his usual stump speech, Bernie Sanders tonight threw his support behind Hillary Clinton, providing a clear contrast between Clinton and GOP nominee Donald Trump on the many issues he used to discuss in his campaign stump speeches. Sanders spoke glowingly about the presumptive Democratic nominee, lauding her work as first lady and as a strong advocate for women and the poor. “We need leadership in this country which will improve the lives of working families, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor,” he said. “Hillary Clinton will make a great president, and I am proud to stand with her tonight."

“MUST NEVER BE PRESIDENT”
Elizabeth Warren Goes After Donald Trump
5 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In a stark contrast from Michelle Obama's uplifting speech, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke about the rigged system plaguing Americans before launching into a full-throated rebuke of GOP nominee Donald Trump. Trump is "a man who has never sacrificed anything for anyone," she claimed, before saying he "must never be president of the United States." She called him divisive and selfish, and said the American people won't accept his "hate-filled America." In addition to Trump, Warren went after the Republican Party as a whole. "To Republicans in Congress who said no, this November the American people are coming for you," she said.

FLOTUS OFFERS STRONG ENDORSEMENT OF CLINTON
Michelle Obama: “I Trust” Hillary Clinton
6 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"In this election, and every election, it's about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives," Michelle Obama said. "There is only one person who I trust with that responsibility … and that is our friend Hillary Clinton." In a personal and emotional speech, Michelle Obama spoke about the effect that angry oppositional rhetoric had on her children and how she chose to raise them. "When they go low, we go high," Obama said she told her children about dealing with bullies. Obama stayed mostly positive, but still offered a firm rebuke of Donald Trump, despite never once uttering his name. "The issues a president faces cannot be boiled down to 140 characters," she said.

SANDERS BACKER CONFRONTS STUBBORN SANDERS SUPPORTERS
Sarah Silverman to Bernie or Bust: “You’re Being Ridiculous”
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Many Bernie Sanders delegates have spent much of the first day of the Democratic National Convention resisting unity, booing at mentions of Hillary Clinton and often chanting "Bernie! Bernie!" Well, one of the most outspoken Bernie Sanders supporters just told them to take a seat. "To the Bernie-or-bust people: You're being ridiculous," said comedian Sarah Silverman in a brief appearance at the Convention, minutes after saying that she would proudly support Hillary Clinton for president.

‘INEXCUSABLE REMARKS’
DNC Formally Apologizes to Bernie Sanders
11 hours ago
THE LATEST

The Democratic National Committee issued a formal apology to Bernie Sanders today, after leaked emails showed staffers trying to sabotage his presidential bid. "On behalf of everyone at the DNC, we want to offer a deep and sincere apology to Senator Sanders, his supporters, and the entire Democratic Party for the inexcusable remarks made over email," DNC officials said in the statement. "These comments do not reflect the values of the DNC or our steadfast commitment to neutrality during the nominating process. The DNC does not—and will not—tolerate disrespectful language exhibited toward our candidates."

Source:
×