Why I hope Obama fires some people

How can we tell if change has really come to Washington, and how will we know that Obama is really governing well? Ironically, one indicator is how many of his own appointees he ends up firing in his first couple of years in office. I’m not talking about a case like Tom Daschle — who ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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588730_090206_obama_fire_2.62.jpg
US President Barack Obama addresses the House Democrats Conference in Williamsburg, VA, February 5, 2009. Obama fired a biting campaign-style attack on Republicans and the former Bush administration, seeking to drive his 900 billion dollar stimulus plan through Congress. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

How can we tell if change has really come to Washington, and how will we know that Obama is really governing well?

Ironically, one indicator is how many of his own appointees he ends up firing in his first couple of years in office. I'm not talking about a case like Tom Daschle -- who hadn't even unpacked his office and got tripped up for failing to pay all his taxes -- I'm talking about letting people go because they aren't performing well once in office.

How can we tell if change has really come to Washington, and how will we know that Obama is really governing well?

Ironically, one indicator is how many of his own appointees he ends up firing in his first couple of years in office. I’m not talking about a case like Tom Daschle — who hadn’t even unpacked his office and got tripped up for failing to pay all his taxes — I’m talking about letting people go because they aren’t performing well once in office.

You might think that having to fire people is a sign of poor leadership, and the GOP is bound to spin it that way. But in fact, being willing to let people go will be a reassuring sign that Obama is focused first and foremost on results.

Unlike Rush Limbaugh, I’m not hoping for failure. In fact, I hope Obama and his team turn out to be the most inspired, dedicated and successful public servants we’ve ever seen. But I’m a realist, and I don’t expect perfection. So I’ll be worried if all the new appointees are in place a year or two from now and I’ll be reassured if a few heads have rolled.

Here’s why. Even when you assemble an experienced team with glittering resumes, some appointees inevitably turn out to be not very good at their jobs. This happens in every administration, as people who previously held mid-level jobs move up and take on more demanding responsibilities, as some officials take charge of unfamiliar policy areas, and as some fresh faces get handed big assignments. Inevitably, some appointees will perform well while others turn out to be in over their heads. There’s no great mystery here: lots of companies pick the wrong CEO even though they looked great on paper, and universities sometimes appoint presidents or deans who seem ideal when they’re hired and are disappointing once in office. Plenty of head coaches and top draft choices don’t live up to expectations either.

This problem will be particularly serious for the Obama administration, because they have inherited an array of nearly-unprecedented challenges. In addition to lengthy list of foreign policy problems, (Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, the Arab-Israeli conflict, Darfur, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico, climate change, etc.), the new team has a big to-do list here at home (health care, infrastructure, education, etc.) and an economy that is uncharted waters. Indeed, on that last item — the economy — nobody is quite sure what to do.   

This means that the failure rate is bound to be even higher for Obama’s team than it would be for an administration dealing with more normal circumstances. It’s a bit like what happens when a country goes to war after a long era of peace. They often discover that their top commanders are better at managing budgets than winning on the battlefield, and so they spend the first couple of years burning through a lot of generals until they find a few who can actually fight and win. Look at Abraham Lincoln, who went through six different top generals (McDowell, McClellan, Pope, Burnside, Hooker and Meade) before he finally found Ulysses S. Grant.

Obviously, too high a turnover rate can be worrisome, too. It takes time to find replacements and get them up to speed, and having to let people go is distracting and erodes political capital. It is always tempting for a President to reward loyalty, and to hang on to trusted subordinates even when they aren’t living up to expectations. But it’s a mistake, and especially when there is so much that needs to be done and needs to be done well. And if we need to be reminded of that fact, just remember the last eight years. The Bush administration consistently prized loyalty more than competence, which is why Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales kept their jobs as long as they did and why Condoleezza Rice got promoted to Secretary of State after a dismal performance as National Security Advisor, with predictably mediocre results.

Given our current circumstances, priority must be placed on finding people who can do their jobs not just adequately but outstandingly. I’m confident that some of Obama’s appointees will do just that, but I am equally sure that some of them won’t. I’ve got no idea who will fall in each category, but I hope Obama is ruthless about weeding out the folks who don’t measure up. That would be change we could believe in.

JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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