Dysfunction Junction

The White House Brain Trust

The White House Brain Trust

Glenn Thrush:

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

About Myiq2xu - BA, JD, FJB

I was born and raised in a different country - America. I don't know what this place is.
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74 Responses to Dysfunction Junction

  1. helenk3 says:

    I read the article. it is a sad commentary on what is the executive branch today.
    not once is anything consider from the prospective of ” Is it good for the country. it is always how does it help us politically”

    • The Klown says:

      They could give a rat’s ass about the constitution or separation of powers – it’s all about getting what they want. If they don’t like a law they ignore it. Then they stonewall any investigation into what they do.

      • votermom says:

        There is a reason they have to operate in this closed off inner circle this way – it’s because they are looters & crooks. The inner circle hatches the schemes, Barry is the front guy. The cabinet are stooges & marks.

  2. Very dangerous. Very sad, My question is-
    Who REALLY has the key to the damn football?

  3. The Klown says:
  4. piper says:

    Funny but not funny – In his speechifying today, he said “you know, there are going to be ups and downs during the course of my presidency. And, you know, I think I said early on when I was running, I am not a perfect man and I will not be a perfect president, but I’ll wake up every single day working as hard as I can on behalf of Americans out there from every walk of life who are working hard, meeting their responsibilities but sometimes are struggling because the way the system works isn’t giving them a fair shot.

    And — and that pledge I haven’t broken. That commitment, that promise continues to be — continues to hold; the promise that I wouldn’t be perfect, number one, but also the promise that as long as I’ve got the honor of having this office, I’m just going to work as hard as I can to make things better for folks.”

  5. helenk3 says:


    a really interesting article

    obamacare proves the virtues of federalism

  6. helenk3 says:

    off topic

    Hell On Wheels has been renewed for a fourth season. will return on saturdays next summer

  7. DeniseVB says:

    Politically, I’m starting to feel like Flossy from Gone With The Wind, thanks Obama.

  8. The Klown says:
  9. votermom says:

    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!

    This is the way it is in a lot of banana republics.

  10. The Klown says:
  11. votermom says:

  12. The Klown says:


    Dashing off a few things before I dash:

    1.) The Richard Cohen thing. The lede kind of got buried in the Richard Cohen s^&*storm. It’s not that the Tea Party people are racist, though some of them clearly are. It’s that they consider their views to be “conventional”. That’s the cover that the Fox News manipulators, Limbaughians and Glen Becksters have given them. My hypothesis about how the right wing has been able to get away with so much is that it makes it Ok for some Americans to give in to their secret desires. They want to feel superior to some people and exert power over others. That’s why they tend to take it out on people of color, women, gays and immigrants. They’re f^*(ing cowards when it comes to taking on the real culprits who are making their lives an economic nightmare. That’s why you’ll never see them at an Occupy rally, because that might actually make a difference but would also be potentially dangerous to their physical bodies. But they’re perfectly fine bashing people who have no political power. And they allow this because they call themselves conventional. I think Bob Altmeyer wrote a book about conventional people called The Authoritarians.

    It’s really disturbing to see an old friend descend into madness.

    • The Klown says:

      Of course in her mind she is “conventional.”

      • The Klown says:

        How is someone who is in favor of small government trying to control other people? If anything, small government types would be selfish and uncaring, not controlling. It’s progressives who are obsessed with controlling everyone else.

    • lyn says:

      I remember when RD was trying to get commenters at The Confluence to contribute to Kiva. I thought, “Wow. She must have a lot of loans there.” She only had one. For me, that said it all. I did have fun loaning $500 in one afternoon; I did get it all back.

      • The Klown says:

        I don’t think RD is a bad person. She is misguided, and obsessed with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.

        None of the people/groups she is obsessed with is in control of anything.

  13. helenk3 says:

    I have so much respect for Megan Kelly. between ezek the bleak last night and bill O’Reilly tonight she has so much patience for male stupidity and arrogance.

  14. helenk3 says:


    and here comes nancy

    there is nothing in obamacare that says your insurance company should cancel you

    botox and koolaid is so bad for your brain

  15. The Klown says:
  16. The Klown says:
  17. OT. Here on the Monterey Bay we have lots of aquatic stuff to keeo us interested, and bring in the tourists, too. Bur right now there’s an interesting tweak to that
    Because of Global Warming and the passage of the ACA our anchovy “crop” is humongous. So tbat means our stinky sea lion flocks have grown exponentially. Which, in turn, has now brought in two more pods of sea lion consuming Orcas.
    We have about 150 resident humpbacks and two woebegone local Orcas, but the sight on an extra dozen or so Killer Whales enjoying a feeding frenzy on sea lions splurging on anchovies less than a hundred yards off shore has generated a huge buzz.

    • DandyTIger says:

      That’s way cool. In a marine biology sort of way. Some tourists might be squeamish though. Mmm, sea lions.

    • The Klown says:

      The surfing must be interesting.

    • Somebody says:

      I’m glad I missed that when I was in Monterey! We were there in June, stayed at the Embassy Suites and had a lovely view of the bay…..gorgeous sunset! The view wouldn’t have been so pleasant if it included a feeding frenzy, although my 13 year old science geek would have probably enjoyed it, sort of like a live animal planet show.

      Monterey and Big Basin made the top of my list. San Francisco and its many attractions topped hubby and my daughter’s list……..which is funny because I’m more a city person and they’re typically more into nature.

    • lyn says:

      Nothing beats barking sea lions during the night when you’re camping near a bay.

      • The Klown says:

        Barking spiders at church camp.

      • Every few years we get double whammy’s with sea lions, like this year. This is the first time in a long time they’ve had a predator to keep them moving. Usually they climb aboard and take over a dozen or so moored small craft in the harbor, laze around on their decks, rip up 5their sales and generally trash ’em. The smell of sea lion farts and poop will gag an elephant, and has often forced me to move scheduled meetings to other locations. They stink.

        • The Klown says:

          I had an old boss who liked to go salmon fishing. He hated sea lions because they would follow the boats and steal fish off the lines. He said there were a few times he would have shot a sea lion if he could have.

          That’s a huge no-no, but he thought about it.

  18. lisadawn82 says:

    I worked at the Bureau of Economic Analysis for over two years. I loved it there. It was/is full of smart committed people who love their job and work very hard. The only reason I left is because the hot and humid DC weather gave me nosebleeds so bad I had to go to the hospital. I know that Federal career workers have a bad rep but me experience tells me otherwise.

  19. The Klown says:

    Obama knows what he doesn’t know, but he doesn’t know what he knows he knows.

  20. The Klown says:


    It was bound to happen sooner or later: Paul Krugman has discovered suburban sprawl. He’s against it. Big surprise there. After all, sprawl has been an all-purpose bogeyman for enlightened liberals for a long time (some liberals blamed the 1999 Columbine school shooting on sprawl, harshing Michael Moore’s anti-NRA narrative, but never mind). One wonders what took Krugman so long to joint the bandwagon.

    Krugman comes close to suggesting that if suburban sprawl around Detroit had been prevented, Detroit would be fine today. He deplores Atlanta, precisely because it has allowed suburban growth. He endorses “smart growth” policies, “which try to promote compact centers with access to public transit.” In other words, Krugman joins other liberals in wanting to use the force of the law to compel people to live in modes contrary to their revealed preferences (as most other economists would say). The irony is lost on Krugman that in order to promote social mobility, he wishes to use the power of government to prevent physical mobility—the right and ability of people to exit predatory, dysfunctional urban governments like Detroit.

    It’s a mystery to me why people like Krugman can still claim to be called “liberal.” There is nothing liberal at all about them. Like his fellow elitist snob Tom Friedman, Krugman is better classified as an authoritarian. And an especially nasty one at that. Funny thing about authoritarians: they always end up being nasty sooner or later.

    • Mary says:

      Paul Krugman lives in a huge mansion on lotta acres, much like ole Michael Moore.

      What he insists on for others, he doesn’t want for himself.

  21. The Klown says:
  22. DandyTIger says:

    “When all government, domestic and foreign, in little as in great things, shall be drawn to Washington as the center of all power, it will render powerless the checks provided of one government on another, and will become as venal and oppressive as the government from which we separated.” — Thomas Jefferson 1821

  23. DandyTIger says:

    Political ideology is religion. Views and beliefs are based on feelings and faith from charismatic leaders. There are priests and saints of the religion. And there are devils and demons. Listening to the devil is a sin. You need to listen to sermons and donate. Political parties are the churches.

    It’s so nice to not be a member. Nice to be a political heathen.

  24. helenk3 says:


    whitehouse threatens veto of Upton bill. the one that says if you like your insurance, you can keep your insurance

  25. helenk3 says:

    stolen from a commenter at no quarter


    When the Obama Magic Died

    a really good article

    • t says:

      Oregon isn’t that (D) of a state outside of Portland and college towns. Pretty much the whole Eastern side of the state is more like Idaho in terms of political identification. But this billboard is located just a little ways south of Portland, which is definitely surprising.

    • lyn says:

      Good catch, helenk! I needled the magnificent four on Twitter this morning. Merkley is so confused. Gov. Kitzhaber is a doctor, and this is his third term. Kitz took a break before he ran again.

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