Are we all figments of Barack Obama’s imagination?

We’re on the brink of a fascinating experiment. One of the most sweeping changes of top White House personnel in history is about to take place. Within just a couple of weeks from now, the president will have replaced his chief of staff (twice), two deputy chiefs of staff, his national security advisor, his top ...

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

We're on the brink of a fascinating experiment. One of the most sweeping changes of top White House personnel in history is about to take place. Within just a couple of weeks from now, the president will have replaced his chief of staff (twice), two deputy chiefs of staff, his national security advisor, his top economic advisor, his top political advisor, and his spokesperson.

This would be extraordinary in any organization. But the Obama White House has been famous since its cast and crew were first assembled for being driven by a core team around the president. Characterized variously as a bubble around the president, an inner circle, and a cabal, one of the most common complaints heard from those inside the administration is that the team around the president has been impenetrable .

They have in the eyes of cabinet secretaries and senior departmental officials co-opted traditional cabinet prerogatives. Even to some working at high levels in the White House, they have been less the gatekeepers all presidents demand and more like the trolls living under the bridge by which the Oval Office was accessed -- difficult to deal with and hard to pass by.

We’re on the brink of a fascinating experiment. One of the most sweeping changes of top White House personnel in history is about to take place. Within just a couple of weeks from now, the president will have replaced his chief of staff (twice), two deputy chiefs of staff, his national security advisor, his top economic advisor, his top political advisor, and his spokesperson.

This would be extraordinary in any organization. But the Obama White House has been famous since its cast and crew were first assembled for being driven by a core team around the president. Characterized variously as a bubble around the president, an inner circle, and a cabal, one of the most common complaints heard from those inside the administration is that the team around the president has been impenetrable .

They have in the eyes of cabinet secretaries and senior departmental officials co-opted traditional cabinet prerogatives. Even to some working at high levels in the White House, they have been less the gatekeepers all presidents demand and more like the trolls living under the bridge by which the Oval Office was accessed — difficult to deal with and hard to pass by.

And now, of the innermost circle, three members are gone or going — Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, and Robert Gibbs. Rumor has it that possible incoming chief of staff may seek to alter the role of the last remaining member of the Four Horsemen of the Obamalypse, Valerie Jarrett.

So, given the role these folks have played and the sweeping changes that are taking place, one might expect a massive change in the way the administration operates. Unless…

There are two reasons why the anticipated changes might not produce such a striking result, however. One is that the people who are replacing the outgoing folks are clones or so neutral that in the end the new bubble is the Beatlemania version of the old bubble, a tribute band playing the old favorites just like the originals once did.

The other is that the bubble doesn’t really matter. In this version, the administration is not just unusually White House-centric in an executive branch system that is pretty White House-centric to begin with. It’s actually extremely president-centric even for a system that is really very president-centric at its core. (Remember, the Constitution doesn’t envision a cabinet or a big executive branch and in fact, for most of U.S. history, the president’s staff and the executive branch were really a pretty compact team.)

In this second scenario, the reason why Obama 1.1 would look, smell and act like 1.0 is that in the end it really is all an extension of the president, operating to his specifications, a living embodiment of the old saw that an institution is just the extended shadow of one man. In this version, the Obama team really is just a manifestation of the president’s will, changing and shifting as his thoughts and needs change, taking the shape that he imagines for them.

While there’s a bit of this in all White Houses given that most power in the White House flows directly from the president and that everyone serves at his pleasure, Obama himself has helped manufacture a reputation for being his own best advisor, speechwriter, political strategist and spokesperson. As the cardboard boxes are being filled with Chia Pets and family photos and offices are being re-arranged some who support the president vigorously worry this remains the way the president likes things and regardless of whose names are in the boxes on the org chart nothing much is going to change.

Or will it? That’s the question that will enter 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue along with this new team. Will they transform the administration as such a sweeping reshuffle might or will they simply try to preserve the status quo? Is this a watershed in the history of a maturing president growing into the job or is it a sign that this president like another first-termer not too long ago, intends to "stay the course?"

David 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. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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