The Real Problem in Washington is Obama’s Management Style

Steven Brill, a distinguished journalist with liberal political leanings, was on National Public Radio last week giving an overview of his new book about Obamacare’s bitter politics and disastrous rollout.  His remarks (audio and transcript here) reinforce the points I’ve made in my last post about how the management problems long undermining the Obama White House will derail the president’s hope of using the next two years to shore up his policy legacy.

Brill is particularly critical of the White House’s role in overseeing Obamacare’s botched launch in the fall of 2013.  He related in the radio interview that he received seven different answers from administration officials when he asked in the months leading up to the rollout who was ultimately in charge.  He exclaimed that “there have [sic] never been a group of people who more incompetently [launched] something.”  He emphasized that Obama’s tightly-knit inner circle – and especially Valerie Jarrett, who seems to function as Obama’s consigliere – shielded the president from numerous signals warning that all was not well.  As a result, Obama failed in the most basic task as a manager, since “he did not know what was going on in the single most important initiative of his administration.”

I’ve noted earlier that there are common themes connecting the Obamacare fiasco and the White House’s dysfunctional national security apparatus.  Brill’s remarks underscore a major one: The president’s closest confidants squelch the flow of bad news and dissenting advice into the Oval Office.

Criticism of Jarrett’s extraordinary influence on policymaking has risen as administration setbacks multiply.  Early on, a long profile in the New York Times magazine dubbed her “the ultimate Obama insider” while a review in the New Republic two months ago called her the “Obama Whisperer.”  Brill reports he’s heard from five senior administration officials that Jarrett is the “real chief of staff” in the White House on many issues.  And according to a top Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill, she is “not only Rasputin” – referring to the mystical figure who served as a private adviser to the last Russian czar – but also “the Berlin Wall preventing us from even getting messages to the president.”

It’s similar story for Denis R. McDonough, a former Obama campaign official who now serves as the White House chief of staff.  Two years ago I questioned whether he was the right choice for the job given that the criticism he attracted for running a very sloppy and politicized shop when he was the president’s deputy national security advisor.  Several months before the Obamacare launch, Time magazine reported that the West Wing under McDonough was fully focused on the rollout and that McDonough himself was spending two hours a day on it.  Brill adds that on the evening before the October 2013 launch, McDonough was reassuring everyone in sight that the website would work even more spectacularly than advertised.

In the weeks following the bungled rollout, Obama acknowledged that “We have to ask ourselves some hard questions inside the White House.”  Ron Fournier at the National Journal opined that the president needed “to fire himself.  Not literally, of course, but practically.  He needs to shake up his team so thoroughly that the new blood imposes change on how he manages the federal bureaucracy and leads.”  Given his central role, some observers speculated that the axe would fall quickly on McDonough though in the end he managed to emerge from the episode unscathed.

The sharp rebuke the White House suffered two months ago in the midterm congressional elections occasioned a similar spat of advice.  A piece in Politico counseled the president to dump Jarrett, while Dana Milbank at the Washington Post urged him to sweep the White House clean of the yes-men culture personified by McDonough and Jarrett.  Instead, Obama has now reportedly stopped interacting with most of his advisers in favor of closeting just with McDonough and Jarrett.

As I wrote last week, the problem with all the talk about Obama now being free to pursue the policy agenda he’s always wanted is that he is only as good as the people he relies upon and the management style he’s installed in the White House.  Until the president realizes this, he’ll find the next two years to be as frustrating as the previous ones.  Domestic affairs will suffer, but so will U.S. foreign policy.

UPDATE, January 15: Writing today on the Daily Beast website, Leslie H. Gelb, former president of the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations, underscores the points made above.  He argues that the White House’s failure to send President Obama or Vice President Biden to last weekend’s Paris unity march …

… demonstrated beyond argument that the Obama team lacks the basic instincts and judgment necessary to conduct U.S. national security policy in the next two years. It’s simply too dangerous to let Mr. Obama continue as is—with his current team and his way of making decisions.

He advises that “Mr. Obama will have to excuse most of his inner core, especially in the White House. He will have to replace them with strong and strategic people of proven foreign policy experience.”  He adds that …

… Mr. Obama will have to thank his senior National Security Council team and replace them. The must-gos include National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, chief speech writer/adviser Ben Rhodes, and foreign policy guru without portfolio Valerie Jarrett.  He will have to replace them with strong and strategic people of proven foreign policy experience.

UPDATE, January 20: In a television interview today, Denis McDonough took responsibility for the decision not to send a high-level representative to the Paris unity march.

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