But can one actually reboot a Presidency? All Administrations have their ups and downs, their oscillations of fortune; but can the ups be engineered? And, if so, by what means?
The staff reshuffle is a frequent resort. A hope persists, despite generally poor results, that new blood cures all. On his appointment as chief of staff, in 1987, Howard Baker was hailed as a certain “savior” of the ailing Reagan Administration, which had been hobbled by the Iran-Contra scandal, Reagan’s long convalescence after abdominal surgery, and a perp-walk parade of senior officials facing ethics charges. Within six months, Baker was blamed for virtually the whole mess. In mid-1993, a veteran of that same White House, David Gergen, got the call from Bill Clinton, who was beset by failed nominations, a flap over the firings of travel-office personnel, prolonged embarrassment over an expensive haircut, and carping by centrist Democrats that the White House was listing leftward. Gergen’s charge was to provide a voice of moderation as well as adult supervision for inexperienced staff. His tenure was stormy and brief. The same can be said of William Daley’s time as Obama’s chief of staff, from 2011 until 2012.
Cautionary tales aside, Obama is fortunate that John Podesta has agreed to come onboard as a special adviser. Podesta—as I saw firsthand when he was the chief of staff in the Clinton White House—is, indeed, a “great strategist,” as Obama has called him, and one with a well-developed playbook for this point in a Presidency. Will Obama empower him to use it? Both men, surely, would acknowledge that shifts in personnel mean little unless they portend shifts in strategy. In this sense, and only in this sense, Clinton’s initially clandestine partnership with the strategist Dick Morris, beginning in the wake of the 1994 midterm debacle, might be a model. Working with Morris, Clinton took the offensive on “values” and seized the middle ground between the two parties. “It wasn’t pretty, but it was what was needed,” a former Clinton senior staffer told me recently. “The only thing that works is a rigorous, sharp-eyed focus on what ails a Presidency. It’s almost never about optics or messaging or communications.”