Opinion: What’s <em>really</em> behind the departure of Desiree Rogers from Obama’s White House (Updated)


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(UPDATE: Saturday: Julianna Smoot has been named the new White House party chief. The Obamas are ‘pleased’ to have her on the team. She is ‘humbled and excited.’ Her qualifications as social secretary? She’s an ex-Tom Daschle aide and been chief of staff in the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. Oh, and she was finance chair of Obama’s $750 million presidential campaign.)

When President-elect George W. Bush’s brand-new Chief of Staff Andrew Card called the assembling White House transition team together for its first pre-inaugural staff meeting two blocks from their about-to-be workplace in January 2001, he told everyone in the eager room to look around.


‘In 18 months,’ White House veteran Card announced, ‘most of you will be gone.’ (What he didn’t say was, most of you will use this job on your resume to move on to really good money.)

The White House always looks the same when a new president moves in. But inside, it’s a high-pressure, highly-competitive arena of determined egos, most of whom have just invested two or three years of their lives at crummy wages, eating crummy food, scrapping and tearing to get there. Not everyone gets along, including some big names who look all pally for the photos. And there’s a perpetual turnover. Hard to believe in power-addicted D.C., but many folks actually prefer life back home.

The departures have started early for the Obama Chicago crowd -- just 13+ months in. But the power jockeying has been going on inside all along. And today....

...the weeding began. Desiree Rogers, the White House Social Secretary who was such a close Chicago pal of both Obama and his wife Michelle, when they needed her, is gone as of next month.

That the announcement came on a Friday says, ‘This is not good news and we hope you miss it with the weekend starting soon.’ And the fact that the Obamas felt the need to provide the face-saving cover of a joint, if perfunctory, letter of praise (‘We are enormously grateful to Desiree Rogers for the terrific job she’s done’) indicates Rogers had become an internal problem.

You will recall the Obamas’ first-ever White House State Dinner last fall for India’s prime minister, one of dozens of events organized by Rogers. However, the glittery guests included the notoriously uninvited Salahi couple. They were thoroughly searched like everyone else.

But the freeloaders got in because, unlike in previous administrations, there was no one from the Obama social secretary’s office standing at the gate with clipboarded names and photos to say, ‘Wait, who the heck are you now?’

Rogers, it turns out, was off enjoying the party herself (see photo at left).

The Obama political crew, which knows how important family friends are to the boss and, more importantly, to the boss’ wife, hung the blame on the Secret Service.

Which is safe, because as civil servants they can’t fight back publicly. The president openly expressed anger over the gaffe in one TV interview. And procedures were quietly changed to re-install the old pre-Rogers procedure.

Let a few months pass to permit connection deniability. Press secretary Robert Gibbs said, no, he didn’t really think there was a connection. And now Rogers is bye-bye.

Every single incoming White House team rewards its friends and even family with cool-sounding positions and opportunities. Obama even moved his mother-in-law into the people’s house.

Rogers, like many in the Democrat’s crowd, is a Harvard grad and a longtime, close friend/ally from the Windy City, where the profoundly interwoven Democratic friendships, alliances, coalitions, family and factional connections and business ties, as well as feuds, have had generations to metastasize and resemble a mountain of spaghetti in their interconnections.

Rogers was a high-profile, stylish Chicago businesswoman, the public face of the Illinois lottery with many beneficial contacts, including, like her replacement Smoot, money-gathering, from her days as head of social networking at Allstate Financial.

Rogers’ ex-husband, John, was also a major Democratic fundraiser in Chicago and, oh look, he played basketball at Princeton with someone named Craig Robinson, now known as brother to First Lady Michelle Obama.

All very useful and mutually beneficial ties for political people coming up there.

But here’s Rogers’ problem: She’s not from the Daley Democratic faction that controls the White House now, particularly access to Obama. The Ticket examined the Chicago connections in depth here earlier this month.

But the Daley faction includes Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who learned his ruthless business running errands for the Chicago machine in the 1980s, and David Axelrod, who knew the machine intimately as a Chicago Tribune politics reporter in those years before becoming a political consultant to them.

It also includes Valerie Jarrett, who was Mayor Richard M. Daley’s deputy chief of staff when she hired someone named Michelle Robinson, now known as First Lady Michelle Obama. Would you like some more meatballs with your spaghetti?

Jarrett has always liked moving safely behind the scenes. Rogers enjoys the social sashaying out front and once raised even natural White House eyebrows by talking candidly with a reporter about selling the Obamas as a brand. All of which is true in politics and what you’re supposed to do in her job. But you don’t say that publicly.

That and the Indian dinner screw-up, among others, gave Jarrett her opening. Here’s how a hardly devastated Jarrett spoke of Rogers today: ‘I completely respect her decision to return to the private sector.’

One other thing Card warned those new White House workers way back in 2001: ‘Remember, please remember, ladies and gentlemen, that when you leave the White House, your letter of resignation will go into the National Archives forever.’ His ensuing long pause, added the unspoken caution: ‘Be careful what you say.’

Rogers’ will forever say it was ‘an honor and a privilege to serve this president and first lady, in what has certainly been a historic presidency.’

And in growing ways now, predictably pedestrian as well.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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