Obama, Fire Your Staff!

The president needs to learn an important lesson, says historian Sean Wilentz: Sometimes the most loyal staffers are the most destructive to a commander in chief’s agenda.

Pete Souza / The White House

Now that President Obama has confronted some harsh political realities over health-care reform and has seen his public-approval ratings fall down to earth, he can do many things to set his administration on a fresh course. He might begin, though, by heeding some lessons of history. Like too many unsuccessful presidents, he has surrounded himself in the Oval Office with a select coterie of campaign loyalists from Chicago politics and his former Senate office. As Politico editor John Harris reported Jan. 22, this inner circle consists of “romantics” who are enveloped by pettiness, grandiosity, and hero worship left over from the 2008 primaries and general election.

Successful presidents understand cardinal rules about running the White House that unsuccessful presidents do not. It is almost always important for the president to leave behind many from the inner circle.

Leslie H. Gelb: Rumbling Over Rahm Emanuel Unable to shift out of campaign mode, Harris writes, the president’s confidants are driven by “a basic attitude toward Clinton-style governance [that] is hostile,” even though one member of the Cabinet is named Clinton and an array of veterans of the Bill Clinton administration are on Obama’s staff—including White House Chief of Staff and former Chicago Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who, according to a recent Financial Times report, “treats Cabinet principals like minions.” By seeing their own world starkly, as the stage for a dramatic struggle of world-historic, “transformational” proportions, these would-be saints close to the president have embraced fantasies of transcendence that have yielded to needless factionalism within the Democratic Party and inside Obama’s administration: Blue Dogs versus liberals, idealists versus pragmatists, as well as, evidently, dueling bands of White House insiders.

History, alas, is filled with examples of insular White House palace guards undermining presidents’ political survival as they seek to shield him from influences other than themselves. The resulting problems are far more serious than a couple of gatecrashers at a State Dinner. Invariably, true believers fall to fighting among themselves. In an obviously well-sourced column on Feb. 21 in response to The Daily Beast’s Leslie H. Gelb, Dana Milbank of The Washington Post defended Emanuel while urging the firing of others. “Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter,” Milbank wrote. “…Obama’s problem is that his other confidants—particularly Valerie Jarrett and Robert Gibbs, and, to a lesser extent, David Axelrod—are part of the Cult of Obama.”

Milbank and Gelb are right that change is called for. Successful presidents understand cardinal rules about running the White House that unsuccessful presidents do not. It is almost always important for the president to leave behind many from the inner circle who helped win the election. The group that excelled in the politics of campaigning is usually not well-suited to the politics of governing. Carrying forward grudges, perceived slights, and personal alliances can only hamper the president from consolidating leadership of his party, let alone of the nation. Being surrounded by adoring aides who consider themselves a tough-minded Praetorian Guard for having helped win one campaign inculcates habits of exclusivity and exclusion that lead presidents self-destructively into the bunker when the going gets tough, which it always does. When the initial group of advisers causes strain among the team or has depleted whatever talents or ideas it might have, successful presidents remove it and seek replacements in circles very different from those from which the failed, exhausted, or abrasive advisers came.

Telling examples of these imperatives come from the presidencies of two men whom President Obama has often cited, politics and ideology aside, as models: Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. When Lincoln became president, he freed himself from the Illinois politicos who had paved the way for his nomination and election and instead sought intelligence from a broad array of office holders and military men. He did not forget the men who had elected him—he named his campaign manager, David Davis, to the Supreme Court in 1862—but neither did Lincoln cloister himself within a White House inner circle. Nor was Lincoln afraid to dump appointees. In 1862, he forced the resignation of his politically influential but not very capable secretary of War, Simon Cameron, and replaced him with the unlikely Edwin Stanton, the attorney general in the previous Democratic administration whose contemptuous opinion of Lincoln was well-known. Nevertheless, Lincoln and Stanton forged a superbly effective partnership.

Ronald Reagan named as his first chief of staff James Baker III, the campaign manager of his bitter rival for the Republican nomination in 1980, George H.W. Bush, himself chosen as vice president in what proved a political masterstroke. The pragmatic Baker proved enormously effective, especially in getting much of Reagan’s conservative domestic agenda enacted during his first term while curbing Reagan’s more conservative political aides and supporters from California. Thereafter, whenever an appointee caused difficulty, regardless of political affinity or personal relationship, Reagan sacked him and looked in a very different direction to find fresh blood, replacing Alexander Haig with George Shultz as secretary of State, Edwin Meese with Richard Thornburgh as attorney general, and Donald Regan with Howard Baker as his third chief of staff.

The presidential exception that proves the rule was John F. Kennedy, whose special bond with his brother, Robert, lasted beyond the 1960 campaign and proved of vital importance after RFK became attorney general. But after the Bay of Pigs, of course, JFK did not fail to remove CIA Director Allen Dulles. More typical was Jimmy Carter, who brought many members of his so-called Georgia Mafia with him to the White House, stuck by them loyally, and in time found himself isolated and confused within his own political bubble. By the time he awoke to his difficulties, Carter reacted by blaming the American people’s psychology for the “crisis of confidence” (in his notorious “malaise” speech), and then appeared to panic by immediately demanding letters of resignation from his entire Cabinet, of which he eventually accepted five.

If the president will not shake up his inner circle, he at least ought to start expanding it and talking seriously with a host of people well outside his comfort zone, much as Lincoln and Reagan—as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt, who operated through a constantly changing cast of characters—did before him. Staff changes may not be enough to reverse the looming legislative mess over health-care reform, or even win back the support he has lost among traditional Democratic voters in time for the midterm elections. And timing in these matters is delicate. But only the president is indispensable. If a staff shakeup—an obvious measure employed by all successful presidents—does not prove sufficient, it is certainly necessary, and inevitable sooner rather than later if the president is to achieve much of anything, preventing the unmaking of both his own administration and his party.

Sean Wilentz is a history professor at Princeton University whose books include The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln and The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and historian-in-residence at Bob Dylan's official Web site.