- By David RothkopfDavid Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017.
It’s starting to be that time of administration again. We’re into the second year of the term. The campaign high has worn off. The honeymoon has been over for months and months. The "blame it on my predecessor" free pass has expired. The "learning curve" excuses are wearing thin.
It’s time to be president, to own your government and to take responsibility for whatever happens on your watch.
Which means it’s officially time to start figuring out who to can.
As it happens, round about the middle of the second year, early appointees who managed to get confirmed by the Senate start to go. Some are burned out. Some are starting to realize that most government jobs are not remotely as glamorous as they seem from the outside. Most bureaucracies are dull, grey and full of lifers who fall into two categories: the few, inspiring dedicated public servants upon whose shoulders the weight of governing a great nation sits … and a bunch of hopeless drones who have lucked into jobs from which they can never be fired. (You know who you are. You’re the ones reaching for the keyboard and getting ready to post an indignant comment about how the Constitution requires us to hire people who couldn’t be an assistant manager in a 7/11 and give them some modicum of responsibility for the welfare of millions.)
Then, starting now as a whispers and insider buzz and then building to a crescendo in the weeks after this coming November’s elections, we’ll hear the names of those who need to move on for political reasons, to help the president regain his footing. You know, the scapegoats.
A few folks have already come and gone, of course. White House Counsel Greg Craig is one, victim of a stealthy court assassination worthy of the Borgias. White House green jobs czar Van Jones was Glenn Becked into submission.
Other names are already emerging as favorites for 2010 exits. National Security Advisor Jim Jones has been producing "he’s got to go" buzz even from his colleagues in the White House almost since he arrived. It ebbed for a while, but it’s back. This is due in part because of the one-two punch provided by two of his deputies. One, Denis McDonough, never actually acted as though he reported to Jones, remaining in his campaign role as a close personal aide to the president…a fatal structural error the President has imprudently allowed to fester. (And he’s not the first to suffer this problem.) The other, Tom Donilon, has been so exceptionally effective that he gets the credit when the national security process runs well rather than having it accrue to his boss … and, as a consequence, he too is now seen as closer to the President than Jones.
Currently producing the kind of should-he-stay-or-should-he-go-now chorus that would make any fan of The Clash proud is a man who has made clashes his stock-in-trade, Rahm Emanuel. Some say he is thinking of running for Mayor of Chicago — although the foul-mouthed and intemperate Rahm seems far too refined and "clean" a politician to make it in Illinois Democratic politics. (To soak in the full sludge, read up on the recent flame out of the just-selected Illinois democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Scott Cohen. After winning the primary for his party’s nomination, he was pressured by his running mate to drop out because Cohen, who made his millions a pawn broker, was a roid-using, deadbeat Dad accused of beating his ex-wife and a hooker ex-girlfriend he got to know at a massage parlor. And this is the guy who won the race…)
Others who get mentioned frequently are Tim Geithner, whose fate will turn on whether unemployment starts to fall and whether the U.S. can, as he has promised, hang on to its AAA rating and keep the dollar from truly tanking, USTR Ron Kirk who may go down in history despite his earnest best efforts as the least productive occupant ever in that job (which is saying something), any number of the czars who arrived with much ballyhoo but who are having a rough time delivering, and maybe Bob Gates, which would be a shame, given the great job he has been doing. Others you have never heard of will also go…in some cases, because you have never heard of them.
This happens in every administration. And by "this" I mean the speculation and ultimately the departures. It is not a sign of calamity at the top. It’s a sign of life in Washington. That said, the critiques implied by recent stories (if you can read only one, go back to the great piece by Ed Luce in the FT last week on the four members of Obama’s inner circle) that argue that it is now time for the president to move from "campaign mode to governing mode" and to relax the tight grip his inner circle have on governing, are absolutely dead-on and need to be heeded. If Obama knew the people who were the sources of the many stories that are appearing in the press on this point, he would take them much more seriously.
But I would like to offer a contrarian view. I would like to suggest that while some churn is inevitable, it is premature to be calling out the White House, Rahm Emanuel, or anyone on the time for failures at governance. Could Rahm & Co. be more strategic, less tactical, less deferential to the Hill, less reactive? Of course. But consider this: If the Senate had passed every bill the House has already passed and the President had signed into law major healthcare reform and major climate and energy legislation (to pick just two items caught in the Senate logjam), Obama and his team would be hailed for the best opening year since Roosevelt.
In other words, the one place most in need of a personnel change is not in the White House or even in the executive branch, it is in the Senate Democratic Leadership. Harry Reid had a 10 vote majority and he couldn’t get anything done. The one switcheroo Obama should be focusing on is right there in the Majority Leader’s office. Harry Reid, who is facing a tough re-election challenge, may be a great guy with an inspiring personal story but the proof is in the pudding and in his case, the pudding is really a stale dog’s breakfast of excuses, back-peddling, and inability to control his own party.
Two things will be required to fix this. First, Reid must be replaced. And while the likely next-in-line Dick Durbin is a favorite throughout the party (despite also hailing from the swamp of Illinois politics), this is not a job that needs another nice guy. Searching for the kind of strong leadership Obama knows he needs, it may be time to satisfy the exceptional ambition of Durbin’s DC roommate, Chuck Schumer. He’s the only one with a shot at becoming a Lyndon Johnson-like, master of the Senate. But, he will only be able to do that — and remember he’s likely to have much less majority than Reid has to play with — with the active, risk-taking, leaderly support of the president himself. That’s a one-two punch that might get something done … and it really is the one personnel issue that should be getting the most attention in DC circles these days.