The White House Brain Trust
Sixteen years ago, president Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor, Robert Reich, summed up the frustrations of adjusting to life in the Cabinet, where even a close personal relationship with the president, dating to their Oxford days, didn’t spare him from being bossed around by arrogant West Wing nobodies. “From the view of the White House staff, cabinet officials are provincial governors presiding over alien, primitive territories,” Reich wrote in a classic of the pissed-off-secretary genre, Locked in the Cabinet. “Anything of any importance occurs in the national palace.”
Two presidents later, the Cabinet is a swarm of 23 people that includes 15 secretaries and eight other Cabinet-rank officers. And yet never has the job of Cabinet secretary seemed smaller. The staffers who rule Obama’s West Wing often treat his Cabinet as a nuisance: At the top of the pecking order are the celebrity power players, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to be warily managed; at the bottom, what they see as a bunch of well-intentioned political naifs only a lip-slip away from derailing the president’s agenda. Chu might have been the first Obama Cabinet secretary to earn the disdain of White House aides, but he was hardly the last.
“We are completely marginalized … until the shit hits the fan,” says one former Cabinet deputy secretary, summing up the view of many officials I interviewed. “If your question is: Did the president rely a lot on his Cabinet as a group of advisers? No, he didn’t,” says former Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Little wonder, then, that Obama has called the group together only rarely, for what by most accounts are not much more than ritualistic team-building exercises: According to CBS News White House reporter Mark Knoller, the Cabinet met 19 times in Obama’s first term and four times in the first 10 months of his second term. That’s once every three months or so—about as long as you can drive around before you’re supposed to change your oil.
For any modern president, the advantages of hoarding power in the White House at the expense of the Cabinet are obvious—from more efficient internal communication and better control of external messaging to avoiding messy confirmation battles and protecting against pesky congressional subpoenas. But over the course of his five years in office, Obama has taken this White House tendency to an extreme, according to more than 50 interviews with current and former secretaries, White House staffers and executive branch officials, who described his Cabinet as a restless nest of ambition, fits-and-starts achievement and power-jockeying under a shadow of unfulfilled promise.
That’s a far cry from the vision Obama sketched out in the months leading up to his 2008 election. Back then, he waxed expansive about the Cabinet, promising to rejuvenate the institution as a venue for serious innovation and genuine decision making. “I don’t want to have people who just agree with me,” he told Time magazine, after reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s classic account of President Abraham Lincoln and his advisers, Team of Rivals. “I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone.”
Obama, many of his associates now concede, never really intended to be pushed out of his comfort zone. While he personally recruited stars such as Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, most other picks for his first Cabinet were made by his staff, with less involvement from the president. “[Bill] Clinton spent almost all of his time picking the Cabinet at the expense of the White House staff; Obama made the opposite mistake,” says a person close to both presidents.
Five years on, Obama’s White House still reflects those priorities. At the top is a stripped-down command cluster modeled on his campaign, ruled by ferocious gatekeepers such as first-term chief of staff Emanuel and the more disciplined man who currently holds the position, Denis McDonough. But Obama also created in the White House an intellectual cloister where he could spitball ideas with academics like Larry Summers or take a few hours, as he did in the middle of the 2012 campaign, to discuss issues like civility in social media with a group of tech titans. The Cabinet, in many cases, fell between the cracks. And Obama, who has a pronounced disdain for traditional Washington institutions, didn’t much care.
There’s a whole bunch more and you REALLY need to go read it. If even 10% of it is true it is an indictment of the whole Obama administration. Sadly, I think it’s mostly true. It comports with everything else we know about this particular administration.
The federal government is HUMONGOUS. It’s inefficient. It’s ossified. It’s the Mother of all Clusterfucks, and that’s on a good day. It’s filled with the dregs of society – bean counters, bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians – people who could not keep a job in the real world. I don’t think the government even knows how many people work for it.
A good executive must delegate both authority and responsibility. A lot of small businesses stay that way because the boss is unwilling or unable to delegate, and there is only so much one person can do.
Somewhere in the mists of time, somebody invented the organizational chart. The Romans certainly understood organization, but I’m not sure if they had charts. But they organized their armies and kicked ass all around the Mediterranean and way up into Western Europe.
Our government has those charts, but the charts LIE. Real power in the Obama administration depends on your proximity to Obama. So what if you are in the official line of succession, if you ain’t a White House aide or advisor, you ain’t shit!
You have 40 years of experience in foreign policy? Well fuck you, I helped run the president’s election campaign! You are an expert on healthcare policy? Big deal, I’m his golfing buddy! You’re the Secretary of Agriculture? Eat shit, cuz I’m his BFF from Chicago!
Ideally, Cabinet posts go to people who have special expertise in the areas they will manage as well as some executive experience and who are politically compatible with the president. The nominations usually involve paying off the power blocs and brokers who help the president win. And a few always go to presidential cronies.
But there is also a bureaucracy made up primarily of career civil servants. The Cabinet Secretaries and Undersecretaries set policy and the grunts carry it out.
In the Obama administration the White House inner circle sets policy and then bypasses the command structure to see that it is carried out. They do this with rewards and punishments. If you wanna get ahead, you gotta go along. This is where Lois Lerners come from.
The worst part is that the White House inner circle are are a bunch of unelected political hacks, not policy wonks. They run the White House like a permanent political campaign. They base their decisions on what they think is good politics, not good policy. They tell the president what they think he wants to hear, not what he needs to know. They are the Protectors of His Image and the Keepers of the Bubble.
But make no mistake – Obama likes living in the bubble. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
IN THE VOLANT LAND OF LAPUTA, according to the journal of Lemuel Gulliver recounting his Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, no person of importance ever listened or spoke without the help of a servant, known as a “climenole” in Laputian – or “flapper” in rough English translation, as such a Servant’s only duty was to flap the mouth and ears of his master with a dried bladder whenever, in the opinion of the servant, it was desirable for his master to speak or listen.
Without the consent of his flapper it was impossible to gain the attention of any Laputian of the master class. – Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
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