Milbank wonders: Why are Obama's former officials so disloyal?

Twitter had a lot of fun with this question last night, mostly at Dana Milbank’s expense, but the emergence of several tell-all accounts while Barack Obama is still in office does seem a little … remarkable.  At least three books in the past year or two have opened the ledger on Obama’s policies and decisions as President, an effort that usually — but not always — begins after a President leaves office. Leon Panetta is the third Cabinet official, and more importantly the third major member of Obama’s national-security team, to write memoirs that criticize him in highly detailed accounts. That, along with some White House officials joining the commentariat, looks like a pattern of disloyalty to Milbank:

George W. Bush got criticism from former advisers (Paul O’Neill, John DiIulio), as did Bill Clinton (George Stephanopoulos, Dick Morris), but this level of disloyalty is stunning, even though softened with praise for Obama’s intellect.

At the start of the year, Robert Gates, Obama’s first defense secretary,wrote a memoir full of criticism of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan, saying Obama made military decisions based on political considerations. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who also published a book this year, criticized Obama for rejecting her advice on Syria, and mocked the “Don’t do stupid stuff” phrase used by administration officials to describe Obama’s doctrine.

The lack of message discipline is puzzling, because Obama rewards and promotes loyalists. But he’s a cerebral leader, and he may lack the personal attachments that make aides want to charge the hill for him. Also, as MSNBC reporter Alex Seitz-Wald tweeted in response to a question I posed, Panetta, Gates and Clinton didn’t owe their careers to Obama. Clinton was a rival, Gates was a George W. Bush holdover and Panetta is a Democratic eminence grise. Loyalty didn’t trump book sales — or Clinton’s need to distance herself from Obama before a presidential run.

But there’s also David Axelrod, long Obama’s loyal strategist, saying on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday that Obama made “a mistake” in saying his economic policies will be on the ballot next month. In quibbling with his old boss, Axelrod followed a path well worn by former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, who once accused his old boss of “exceedingly passive” action.

Axelrod and Gibbs took jobs as media analysts that require them to approach these issues differently (as did Jay Carney). If they act like White House press secretaries, they have no value in the media market, outside of MSNBC’s prime-time shows. Choosing to take these jobs might be problematic in terms of personal loyalty, although it’s doubtful that anyone at the White House thought so at the time. They probably cheered each of these hires as ways to promote their own narrative, and most of the time they’d probably be correct. The occasional chide to preserve credibility doesn’t negate the overall water-carrying value that these transfers to media jobs have for Obama.

The books are different, though, because the expectations for Cabinet officials are different. People expect White House advisers to move into the commentariat, but those who run important agencies are expected to wait for their boss’ exit to cash in on the relationship. For the most part, they usually do. Of the examples Milbank uses above, only Paul O’Neill was a Cabinet official (Treasury), whose departure from the Bush administration was widely known to be acrimonious even before his book came out. The book had no impact on Bush’s presidency, though, and none of the others cited by Milbank had much real impact on presidencies either.

What changed in this presidency? Hillary Clinton’s memoir is easy to explain; she wants to run for President and wanted to address some of the more difficult aspects of her record ahead of the election. It will likely have the least impact on Obama for that reason. Panetta and Gates are more difficult to explain. Gates was a Bush holdover, sure, and Panetta is a longtime ally of the Clintons, but that shortchanges both men, whose records of public service go back a very long way. Their memoirs appear to be less about personality and more about policy and security — and both have grave concerns about the national-security policies pursued by Obama over their own objections. Hillary Clinton’s memoir also makes this argument.

On one level, then, the issue of loyalty may be moot. It appears that Obama wasn’t listening to the people who held authority and expertise in these national-security issues, and now with things going as badly as they are, the three of them (and especially Gates and Panetta) want to make sure the record remains straight on whose decisions led to the debacle. On a broader level, the two men may have their loyalties focused less on Obama than on the nation as a whole. That’s not to say that personal loyalty to the President who appoints one to those positions should be of no account, but it shouldn’t trump the broader commitment to American national security, either.

In other words, the question and focus on these memoirs should be less about what they do to Obama, but what Obama himself is doing.