The Washington Post hears rumors of a staff sweep in the West Wing — and rumblings of discontent within President Obama’s party. The presumed departure of Rahm Emanuel for the mayoral race in Chicago and the exits of economists Christine Romer and Larry Summers may mean a sweeping round of resignations and new appointments. But will it mean opening up the White House to new, fresh perspectives in an attempt to regain good will — or a circling of the wagons in tighter, leftward motion?
The inner circle – Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, senior advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, press secretary Robert Gibbs and Vice President Biden – is breaking up, or at least breaking open. Emanuel is widely expected to run for mayor of Chicago, and Axelrod is likely to leave this spring to prepare for Obama’s 2012 reelection effort.
Obama will soon lose other top advisers. His chief economic adviser, Lawrence H. Summers, announced that he will return to Harvard, where he is a professor; Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina is expected to join Axelrod in Chicago; and national security adviser James L. Jones is said to want out by the end of the year.
Some former aides and allies of the president expressed hope that Obama will take advantage of the departures – which are common at the two-year point in any presidency – to bring in outsiders who will challenge the president’s current team.
“They miscalculated where people were out in the country on jobs, on spending, on the deficit, on debt,” said a longtime Democratic strategist who works with the White House on a variety of issues. “They have not been able to get ahead of any of it. And it’s all about the insularity. Otherwise how do you explain how a group who came in with more goodwill in decades squandered it?” The strategist asked not to be identified in order to speak freely about the president and his staff.
Insularity is a fancy word for losing touch with the electorate, and that much has been obvious since the big push for ObamaCare started in 2009. Emanuel reportedly warned against getting stuck in an almost interminable debate, but the rest of the White House apparently didn’t see the dangers. That makes the Post’s predictions for replacements rather interesting:
But Obama might not look too far beyond the walls of the White House in his search for new advisers. In the pervasive but often unreliable Washington guessing game, the names most often heard are already familiar to the president:Tom Donilon, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, is thought to be a leading contender either for Emanuel’s job or for Jones’s post. Donilon and Obama became close during the 2008 campaign, when he was in charge of prepping the candidate for debates.
Senior adviser Pete Rouse is another possible choice to replace Emanuel. He served as Obama’s chief of staff in the Senate. Other possible candidates include Bob Bauer, the White House counsel, who was the president’s personal attorney before he joined the administration last year; Phil Schiliro, who runs Obama’s congressional liaison office; and former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, a close Obama ally.
Anne Kornblut and Scott Wilson note that Obama’s choices of replacements have a common thread: they’re Obama insiders. Elizabeth Warren and Austan Goolsbee, two of the most recent appointments, are both inner-circle Obamaites. More importantly, they are almost certain to reinforce the decisions already made by this administration rather than offer heterodox points of view and proposals. The same can be said of the candidates noted above for the upcoming vacancy for chief of staff.
Democratic strategist Peter Fenn says that “this is the way Kennedy worked,” sticking with a small circle of close advisers, but that strategy only works when the advice given succeeds. Kennedy didn’t squander an immense level of popularity in less than two years, though, nor did he extend a recession and a post-recession malaise with bad economic policies as Obama has done. Democrats should worry about insularity. This administration is desperately in need of a reset button.