A Government by Clique, A Cabinet Missing in Action

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. 

Tags: Obama Administration, David Alexrod, Robert Gibbs, Valerie Jarrett, rahm emanuel (all tags)

Comments

17 Comments

arses

"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"

Hardly.

They killed Healthcare. They're killing Obama.

by QTG 2010-02-09 08:41AM | 0 recs
Gee Rahm, you're up early reading blogs

Oh I get it, it's because the federal government is shut down due to snow.

Guess we can expect lots of attacks on the 'left of the left' today...nothing else to do, huh?

That article has touched you biggest nerve hasn't it, Rahm?

 

 

by merbex 2010-02-09 09:59AM | 1 recs
RE: Snow? What's Dat?

I'm soaking up the sunshine here in Miami, as usual. You say there's snow someplace? The article didn't hit a nerve so much as it has a lot of nerve, seeing as it gives no credit to the loonies for killing health care reform.

 

by QTG 2010-02-09 12:12PM | 0 recs
RE: Gee Rahm, you're up early reading blogs

Maybe gtg is still a bit too stuck on the "bill killers" meme, but he does bring up the point that it was not the GOP or the "other side" which de-railed HCR. While they did obstruct and draw out the process and not offer any substantitive solutions - it was the Democrats who crafted a bill that eveidently a significant portion of the left hated enough to kill.

by vecky 2010-02-09 12:19PM | 0 recs
RE: gtg is still a bit too stuck on the "bill killers" meme

What's got me stuck is "the don't look at us, it's all Obama's fault" meme that has been repeated ad nauseum by the very people who advocated for the failure of HCR. Until they take credit (or responsibility) I'll be making sure that any historians reading MyDD in years to come will have the real chronology of what happened.

by QTG 2010-02-09 12:27PM | 0 recs
I diaried on this

But since you point out Charles, it's not so much as the Presidency is being complacent, rather it has mistaken politics for policy and substituted effective campaigning for effective governance. When was the last time any of the inner circle were actually part of government? Except Rahm's short-lived stint in the Clinton WH, no one was in government, yet they are in charge of fomulating policy and governance. The President seems to be more interested in maintaining his image of the national healer (to no avail, I might add, because it not only does not win anyone on the right, but is dividing his own base, as we saw in MA) and pursuing bipartisanship as the end all and be all of all policy much to the detriment of his government.

Consider this, not long ago you diaried whether Obama was right to call a bipartisan summit on healthcare? The true believers jumped on this as yet another briliiant example of n-dimensional chess, but people with short memories seem to forget that the health care bill started with a bipartisan summit where Obama personally drafted the help of Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley to get his bipartian bill and look where it got us now. So why another summit? Why now, if not for the gimmick factor? The Republicans have already telegraphed their opposition to everything unless it is their idea and their idea alone, and even the President himself said that his bill is more in line with the legilation proposed to Republicans during the Clinton years. So first and foremost, we are not only not dealing with Deomocratic ideas, but we have diluted them and waiting to dilute them some more. Is that leadership? Is that governance? He might maintain his image and come out as a likable person but at this rate his Presidency and this government is hurtling down the fast-track towards a train-wreck.

by tarheel74 2010-02-09 10:11AM | 2 recs
Dithering begets dithering

I'm a firm believer in the "victory" strategy because the Republicans used it to wrest and then maintain power for most of the last two decades in Washington.  But Obama, and the Whitehouse more generally, do not seem to be pursuing this approach, at least not with respect to Healthcare Reform.  I'm willing to bet that if Obama and Biden locked themselves in a room with Harry Reid and Speaker Pelosi (and maybe even Boehner and McConnell) and said "no one leaves until we figure out a way to move this forward", that we'd have HCR by the end of the week.  After all, the Repubs are not opposed to HCR as such, they want maximum political leverage out of it.  So, give them some leverage.  They'll release a few Senators to vote on it in exchange for Lieberdouche and Nelsondouche to vote against it.  In return, you promise a vote on tort reform or to withdraw a few nominees or something.  Something makes these people tick, figure it out, compromise, declare victory, move on to financial reform.  That's a victory strategy.

by the mollusk 2010-02-09 10:31AM | 0 recs
No

Backroom dealing is exactly the wrong strategy -- this is what led to the mess we are in right now. Obama's strategy has been to try to accommodate the Republicans and conservative Democrats which has not worked at all.The Republican strategy is to stop Obama and they are succeeding very well. 

Obama should have recognized that he would get no support from Republicans and then launched a campaign that relied heavily on the same grassroots support that got him elected and that challenged the Republicans and conservative Democrats. He should have put pressure on Baucus and then worked with Pelosi and the House Democrats to force through a HCR bill that appealed to the American public, especially grassroots Democrats and independents. Such a bill would have included a public option and the removal of the anti-trust exemption for healthcare insurance companies. Such a bill would have been wildly popular, it would have energized the grassroots and challenged Baucus and the Republicans. Instead, we have a very unpopular HCR bill that conservatives still won't support. Obama couldn't have made more of a mess if he had tried.

At this point, Obama should be pressuring the Senate to pass a bill through reconciliation that fixes the existing HCR bill enough that it will appeal to House Democrats. He should be laughing at the Republican's feeble "healthcare reform proposal" and attacking them for being obstructionist jerks who are playing politics rather than working for the common good. Instead, he is still coddling them.

And if Obama wants to maintain the image of a "healer" then someone else in the administration (Biden, Emmanuel) should do the blasting. But someone needs to fight back against the unfair characterizations of the HCR bill as "socialism" and "death panels".

by RandomNonviolence 2010-02-09 11:02AM | 1 recs
I'm not sure I agree

How much do all these people who complain about "the process" really understand the process?  As it stands now, the subtext to every headline is "The Democrats' healthcare reform plan is so socialist that they get even get one single all-American Republican former middling athlete from podunksville to vote for it.  That's because it is Marxism in action".  You cut a deal with the Repubs on tort reform and the headlines will be "Obama finds a way forward", then, maybe two weeks later there will be two sentences crammed in between Soduku and pictures of bras that says "Some question wisdom of compromise made with Republicans.  Democratic strategists say Obama should have been more transparent."  BOOOORING.  I saw a poll the other day that said something like 26 % of people new that it required 60 votes to get Healthcare Reform passed.  And something like > 50 % believed that a few Republicans had voted for it.  "Independent" is shorthand for "I watch Keeping up with the Kardashians on a regular basis".

by the mollusk 2010-02-09 11:55AM | 0 recs
RE: Preach!

 The biggest mistake that the left makes (I used to make it, too) is thinking that those who self-identify as 'Progressives' or 'Democrats' are more knowledgeable about civics. The best example of the worst use of this ignorance is their killing of health care reform. And blaming Obama for their highly successful stupidity.

by QTG 2010-02-09 12:18PM | 0 recs
RE: Preach!

Well, they are.  So are people who identify themselves as Republicans or Conservatives.  But I would venture a guess that most "Independents" are people who just don't pay attention to politics.  Not that they couldn't understand, but they are turned off or bored by it (who can blame them?).  I often think of these people as my boss at work.  I'm sometimes amazed at what my boss will consider progress.  But the fact is, she's pulled in so many directions that any movement forward is seen as good progress.  Now that I have a few people under me, I can see why this is.  That's how a lot of "Independents" operate.  They tune in to AC360 every couple of weeks and go "What?  The Democrats are still pissing around with Healthcare?  This is ridiculous."

by the mollusk 2010-02-09 12:53PM | 0 recs
Won't work

The point is that if Obama tries to cut a deal with the Repubs on tort reform is that they still won't vote for a final bill. They'll just say it doesn't go far enough and is still too socialist. That is exactly what has been happening for the past 10 months.

Backroom compromising doesn't work. It doesn't make sense to keep trying the same failing strategy.

by RandomNonviolence 2010-02-09 12:44PM | 1 recs
RE: No

I think you'll find that stuff that appeals to grassroots Democrats and independents are not the same.

Independents generally favor tort reform (restriction), prioritize cutting costs over expanding coverage, and are queasy about a mandate. That's why they are Independents, not Democrats!

by vecky 2010-02-09 12:23PM | 0 recs
Maybe there is more to worry about

Maybe the elephant in the room that we do not want to face is that there is the real threat of violence if things are pushed too hard by this administration.  If Obama were to muscle DC to get things through, there could be violent civil unrest.

Seems like the threat of violence from the left is now the only counter balance, sadly.  Seems like many of the angry people out there feel like they have nothing to loose while their country is being stolen from them...and it seems that we may yet need another "education" in how much more there is to loose when violence erupts.  People who are pissed always seem to forget that "it can always be raining".

I personally have to deal with several of these people...they have a LOT of guns, they have a LOT of ammo, and they are simmering.  They are also good, honest, law abiding citizens.  They have just been fed all the hate lines for so long that they want to rise up and do something about it...I think that we may yet see some sort of repeat of the '60's unrest yet.  Great.

by Hammer1001 2010-02-09 11:28AM | 0 recs
RE: Maybe there is more to worry about

yeah. and the sky could fall.

by QTG 2010-02-09 12:19PM | 0 recs
RE: Maybe there is more to worry about

Let them come!

They'll get their ass wupped like it's 1864!

by vecky 2010-02-09 12:26PM | 0 recs
Well I hear from most of them

I hear from Kathleen Sebelius (not me personally, but you get the idea). Her office has been fairly active in the HCR debate.  Chu too recently gave a speech I heard about. Salazar has been quiet I guess, last i can recall is something from last fall. But then I havn't been looking. Arne Duncan is in the news all the time what with his charter schools and new grant program. Vilsack - same as Salazar. Ray LaHood has done some good work on mass transit. I've heard from him recently. Clinton is ofcourse in the news pretty often - Haiti was the last big thing I heard from her on. I don't think Shinseki - who heads the VA right? - needs to be in the news very much. His views on DADT are well known anyway.

by vecky 2010-02-09 12:10PM | 0 recs

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