A Government by Clique, A Cabinet Missing in Action
by Charles Lemos, Tue Feb 09, 2010 at 07:21:09 AM EST
When was the last time you heard from Ken Salazar? or Kathleen Sebelius? When was the last time you saw Stephen Chu, the other Nobel laureate in the Administration? How often do you see Gary Locke quoted in the press? How about Arne Duncan? If you are a Thomas Vilsack watcher, you might as well be watching the corn grow. Did Ray LaHood retire or did he take a job as Secretary of Transportation? Is there a difference?
Even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who prior to joining the Administration was a household name on a first-name basis has faded from the limelight. Janet Napolitano broke through the media blackout in late December after the failed bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on the Detroit-bound airliner only to recede back into the obscurity of a desk job. Does the name Shaun Donovan even ring a bell? Should we send out a search party for Hilda Solis? Has her name even surfaced once? And what is Eric Shinseki up to? The only the Cabinet officials who garner significant media attention on a sustained consistent basis are Secretary of Defense Gates, Attorney General Holder and Secretary of the Treasury Geithner. And in Geithner's case, the attention is usually negative.
What was supposed to be a "team of rivals" has become a "team of bench warmers." The reality is more than this stellar team sits on the sidelines of the Obama Administration because the Administration is effectively the President and his four closest advisors: Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Senior Advisor David Alexrod, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett and White House Senior Communications Officer David Gibbs. It is government by a clique.
If you haven't read Edward Luce's piece from last week in the Financial Times, well then, you really should. Though Luce titled his piece America: A Fearsome Foursome, he might have more aptly named it The Four Horsemen of Obama's Apocalypse. It is that damning.
Just over a year into his tenure, America’s 44th president governs a bitterly divided nation, a world increasingly hard to manage and an America that seems more disillusioned than ever with Washington’s ways. What went wrong?
Pundits, Democratic lawmakers and opinion pollsters offer a smorgasbord of reasons – from Mr Obama’s decision to devote his first year in office to healthcare reform, to the president’s inability to convince voters he can “feel their [economic] pain”, to the apparent ungovernability of today’s Washington. All may indeed have contributed to the quandary in which Mr Obama finds himself. But those around him have a more specific diagnosis – and one that is striking in its uniformity. The Obama White House is geared for campaigning rather than governing, they say.
In dozens of interviews with his closest allies and friends in Washington – most of them given unattributably in order to protect their access to the Oval Office – each observes that the president draws on the advice of a very tight circle. The inner core consists of just four people – Rahm Emanuel, the pugnacious chief of staff; David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, his senior advisers; and Robert Gibbs, his communications chief.
In the article former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, one of the few who spoke on the record, notes that while "this kind of core management approach worked for the election campaign" it really fails to make proper use of a very talented Cabinet.
“Historians will puzzle over the fact that Barack Obama, the best communicator of his generation, totally lost control of the narrative in his first year in office and allowed people to view something they had voted for as something they suddenly didn’t want,” says Jim Morone, America’s leading political scientist on healthcare reform. “Communication was the one thing everyone thought Obama would be able to master.”
Whatever issue arises, whether it is a failed terrorist plot in Detroit, the healthcare bill, economic doldrums or the 30,000-troop surge to Afghanistan, the White House instinctively fields Mr Axelrod or Mr Gibbs on television to explain the administration’s position. “Every event is treated like a twist in an election campaign and no one except the inner circle can be trusted to defend the president,” says an exasperated outside adviser.
Administration insiders say the famously irascible Mr Emanuel treats cabinet principals like minions. “I am not sure the president realises how much he is humiliating some of the big figures he spent so much trouble recruiting into his cabinet,” says the head of a presidential advisory board who visits the Oval Office frequently. “If you want people to trust you, you must first place trust in them.”
In addition to hurling frequent profanities at people within the administration, Mr Emanuel has alienated many of Mr Obama’s closest outside supporters. At a meeting of Democratic groups last August, Mr Emanuel described liberals as “f***ing retards” after one suggested they mobilise resources on healthcare reform.
“We are treated as though we are children,” says the head of a large organisation that raised millions of dollars for Mr Obama’s campaign. “Our advice is never sought. We are only told: ‘This is the message, please get it out.’ I am not sure whether the president fully realises that when the chief of staff speaks, people assume he is speaking for the president.”
The Luce piece has a number of people taking aim at White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel in particular for the strategy pursued in setting the legislative agenda for the Administration.
“The whole Rahm Emanuel approach is that victory begets victory – the success of healthcare would create the momentum for cap-and-trade [on carbon emissions] and then financial sector reform,” says one close ally of Mr Obama. “But what happens if the first in the sequence is defeat?”
While such a momentum or steamroller strategy is not unusual, after all, both FDR, LBJ and Ronald Reagan, the three most transformative Presidents of the 20th Century, employed such a strategy. Over at the American Prospect, Mark Schmitt points to downside of the momentum strategy:
And a momentum strategy has a significant downside: Since everything follows from the first victories, the only thing the other side has to do is stop the first, and the whole train runs off the rails. And while there is a powerful case that health reform should have priority on an economic and moral basis, putting it at the head of a momentum strategy, based on history, is not the soundest bet.
I take a slightly different view. I have nothing against the strategy employed in terms of achieving health care reform first. It is clearly the most important item on the agenda from both a moral issue - having 47 million Americans uninsured is a blight on the national conscience - and from an economic point of view because spending 17 percent of GDP on healthcare is unsustainable. But the problem I have with the Obama Administration is frankly a lack of a coherent overarching vision of where he wants to take the country. A year into his Presidency, the only conviction that the President seems to have is a genuine desire to work with the GOP for the sake of bipartisanship. He takes pains to listen, which is all fine and good, but the Presidency is also a bully pulpit and he has largely failed to use it.
Even the always circumspect and not prone to hyperbole Steve Clemons of Washington Note finds the piece "accurately hard-hitting." He writes:
[I]n the too regularly vapid chatter about DC's political scene, serious critiques of the internal game around Obama not only deserve review on their own merits but have to be read -- because Obama is not winning. He is failing and people need to consider "why".
Any serious survey of the Obama administration's accomplishments and setbacks over the last year has to conclude that the administration is deeply in the red.
If current trends continue, this once mesmerizing Camelot-ish operation will be be seen in the history books as the presidential administration that -- to distort slightly and inversely paraphrase Churchill -- never have so many talented people managed to achieve so little with so much.
The narrative from the campaign that this was to be an Administration that would engage the American people failed to materialize. Instead, we have an Administration that has enraged the paranoid right while the progressive left that was so instrumental in helping Obama to first win the nomination and then the Presidency grows comfortably numb sitting on their collectivist arses becoming evermore uninspired. The motivational Obama that energized and galvanized a nation has given way to a drab lawyer.