Obama sticks with his staff despite slumping poll numbers

As a senior staff meeting broke up one recent morning, President Obama pulled a few aides aside in the Oval Office for a pep talk.

The chatter around Washington was fixated on the president’s sluggish poll numbers, which prompted speculation that Obama might shake up his White House staff.

Obama’s advice: Tune it out.

The blame ultimately belongs on him, Obama told the staffers, and he had no plans to cast any of them aside.


“He was saying we should pull together and focus on what’s important,” recalled one senior staff member who was present and agreed to discuss the private meeting on the condition of anonymity.

For Democrats worried about whether the Obama administration can rebound as the 2012 campaign heats up, the message may not be what they want to hear.

Presidents often have resorted to staff changes as a way to signal a new direction. President Clinton fired some key advisors in 1994, surviving the Democratic losses in the middle of his term to win reelection in 1996.

Dissatisfied with his campaign staff in 1980, Ronald Reagan cleaned house. President George W. Bush famously dismissed Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld after slogging through three years of war in Iraq.

Senior advisors and friends who have known Obama the longest say he is unlikely to follow suit.

“Some executives fire people and replace them with new people, but that’s not his style,” said Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor and longtime Obama family friend. “His style is to pick the best people and then stick with them.”

The president’s key players are plenty familiar with how the game is played, enough to know that a political disaster could always be their ticket home. But Obama lives by a “no drama” principle that has dissuaded him from major housecleanings, according to several senior officials familiar with his philosophy.

Though Obama’s friends admire the approach, it has its critics. Some Democrats in Congress disagree with the themes that the president has been hitting this fall, especially when he threatens to campaign against a “do-nothing Congress.” One complaint is Obama doesn’t always take care to say “do-nothing Republicans,” according to a Democratic senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration.

Obama’s approval ratings have slumped for months. The national unemployment rate remains stuck at 9.1%. Some prominent Democrats think it’s time to make changes.

“For God’s sake, why are we still looking at the same political and economic advisors that got us into this mess?” party strategist James Carville wrote in a recent column. “It’s not working.”

Carville called for Obama to “fire, indict, fight” in order to survive, prompting some to wonder whether Chief of Staff William Daley or top in-house political advisor David Plouffe might be in trouble. Both men remain in place.

“In Washington there has always been an interest in human sacrifice when things aren’t going well,” said David Axelrod, a longtime Obama advisor.

But Obama “has always said, ‘Let’s play as a team,’ and he has inculcated all of us around him with that,” Axelrod said.

Obama’s loyalty to his staff is not absolute. Last year, he asked for the resignation of his first director of national intelligence, retired Adm. Dennis C. Blair, in response to a simmering distrust between White House advisors and Blair’s staff.

In the winter of 2009, during protracted internal talks about conducting stress tests on U.S. banks, Obama reached his limit with the disagreement among his economic team.

If they couldn’t come up with a plan in 48 hours, he told them, he’d replace them with a team that would.

These days, Obama is offering some “strong direction” about changes in strategy, according to Axelrod. The White House is shifting to an “outside game,” focused heavily on drumming up public support for the president’s agenda.

Obama’s same top advisors helped develop the plan, Jarrett said.

“He doesn’t lurch,” she said. “He makes his decision today the way he always has, with thoughtfulness and purpose. He’s not looking for a short-term political victory. The stakes are very high right now.”