President Obama keeps his core staff intact
Despite the historic defeat dealt to Democrats on Tuesday, President Obama appears to be resisting wholesale staff changes that would pry apart the circle of advisors he has relied on since the 2008 campaign.
Obama conceded he has made mistakes over the past two years, telling CBS’s " 60 Minutes” in an interview to be televised Sunday that he failed to clearly explain his decisions — a communications problem he said had diminished him as a leader.
But he shielded his staff from blame, saying: “I take personal responsibility for that. And it’s something that I’ve got to examine carefully as I go forward.”
With Republicans now in control of the U.S. House, the White House quickly announced a few symbolic gestures intended to show they had absorbed the lessons of the midterm election. Obama invited both Democratic and Republican legislative leaders to a meeting followed by dinner in the White House on Nov. 18. It will be the first in a series of bipartisan overtures in the months to come, White House aides said.
But the lack of White House personnel moves — combined with the likely return of Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats and Harry Reid as majority leader of the Senate — leaves a different impression.
A Democratic strategist characterized the lack of change at the White House as “willful defiance.” The strategist, who discussed the issue on condition of anonymity, said, “The political operation from top to bottom, north to south, east to west, needs to be really carefully looked at.”
Even within the White House, some aides have objected to what they see as an insular culture. Obama’s practice of grooming understudies to fill big White House jobs is also under fire.
“The president needs a broader range of views on a daily basis than he’s gotten up till now,” said William Galston, a onetime aide to President Clinton and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “One reason that Ronald Reagan succeeded as president was that he got out of his comfort zone when he appointed senior people, and I think this president needs some people around him who are prepared to challenge not only his policy instincts but his political instincts. The idea of constructing the White House simply by promoting from within is simply ridiculous.”
Among those believed to be safe is Chief of Staff Pete Rouse. Rouse was deputy to Rahm Emanuel, who resigned the chief of staff job a month ago to run for mayor of Chicago. When Rouse stepped into the position, the assignment was deemed temporary. Now, though, Obama will let Rouse remain if that’s his preference, one White House aide said.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, may move to a senior advisory position. But if that were to happen, he likely would be replaced by a deputy. Similarly, senior advisor David Axelrod is expected to be succeeded next year by a close Obama campaign associate, David Plouffe.
“This is a natural time to make adjustments,” Axelrod said in an interview. “Most presidents do this at the midterm.”
Past presidents have coped with midterm election setbacks in different ways.
After Clinton’s party lost Congress in 1994, then-White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers left. Clinton also began quietly consulting a new pollster, Dick Morris, who came up with the “triangulation” strategy that borrowed from Republican ideas and positioned Clinton to win reelection.
When President George W. Bush’s party lost the House in 2006, he ousted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in an acknowledgement of the widespread view that the Iraq war had been mismanaged.
Rumsfeld’s departure and the arrival of Robert M. Gates as Pentagon chief signaled a change in direction of an unpopular war that had consumed Bush’s presidency.
For Obama, a comparable gesture would be shaking up his economic team. While Iraq has receded as a national concern, the weak economy has shot to the top of the list. Exit polls Tuesday showed that more than six of every 10 voters considered the economy to be the country’s dominant issue.
The White House has given no hint that Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner is in danger of losing his job. But Obama needs to replace Lawrence Summers, the director of the National Economic Council, who is leaving to return to Harvard University. That appointment offers the president a chance to redefine his economic policies.
One Democratic strategist said the vacancy provides Obama with an opportunity to find someone who is outside the mold of the typical Ivy League-educated White House advisor.
“I would appoint a Republican who’s not from Harvard,” said Steve Murphy, who managed the 2004 presidential campaign of then-Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). “I would appoint someone whose perspective comes from business. The president should reach out very aggressively to the business community right now.”