The White House’s defenders will attempt to knock down claims that Defense Sec. Chuck Hagel’s resignation is loaded with implications for the future of this administration.
Cabinet officials come and go, they’ll note, but this White House has made a point of standing by its embattled figures. Former Health and Human Services Sec. Kathleen Sebelius resigned in April of this year, well after the controversy surrounding the botched debut of Healthcare.gov. Some speculated that the delay was an intentional effort to disassociate her resignation from the controversy that likely hastened it. Similarly, the political press was shocked when Obama went ahead and accepted former Veterans Affairs Sec. Eric Shinseki’s resignation in late May. Observers called it a departure from “a familiar strategy of protecting embattled Cabinet members,” one which signaled the potentially broad political impact of the VA scandal.
The circumstances of Hagel’s resignation are distinct from those above. Hagel had served in the Obama White House for just two years while the above figures were with Obama from 2009 and were considered figures of great importance to the president’s liberal base. Hagel was not a political asset to the White House in the way that his colleagues and predecessors were, and he had the added weakness of being a Republican at the head of the Pentagon. The last figure friendly toward the GOP whom Obama placed at the head of the DoD went about writing a scathing memoir that was highly critical of both the president and vice president almost immediately after leaving that post. This experience, The New York Times report which revealed Hagel’s impending departure indicated, stung the president and stuck with his aides.
The Times also noted that there were many reasons for Hagel’s departure, and some of them are legitimate. The former Republican senator who had been famously critical of America’s expanded global military footprint was to have largely overseen retrenchment of American forces abroad. When that mission changed, and America became embroiled in another war in Iraq and a new war in Syria, Hagel’s role evolved into something for which he was not prepared.
But the announcement that Hagel was to be jettisoned was also accompanied by the requisite spiteful bad-mouthing from anonymous administration sources which has become so commonplace in the Obama era.
On Monday, NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell revealed that the cast of advisors around Obama was always suspicious of Hagel and his influence on the president’s approach to foreign affairs. “That tight circle never really had a lot of confidence, particularly in Chuck Hagel,” she reported. “Hagel never really proved himself.”
Mitchell also made note of a phenomenon that The Times also observed: The White House was perturbed when Hagel called ISIS an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” Whether this assessment was true or not, that was not what the White House wanted to hear.
“Mr. Hagel has often had problems articulating his thoughts — or administration policy — in an effective manner, and has sometimes left reporters struggling to describe what he has said in news conferences,” The Times reported.
This is all quite unfair. Hagel and other members of the Defense establishment had a bear of a time cleaning up after their president’s routinely impolitic statements about the nature of the ISIS threat.
When, in extemporaneous remarks, Obama told reporters that it was America’s policy to “shrink” ISIS down into a “manageable problem,” it was Hagel who was tapped to clean up those comments. Speaking with CNN reporter Jim Sciutto before an audience of students at the U.S. Naval War College, Hagel insisted that America should dismiss Obama’s off-the-cuff statements and focus only on what he said in his prepared remarks. “No, it’s not contain,” Hagel said of America’s policy toward ISIS. “It’s exactly what the president said: ‘Degrade and destroy.’”
Hagel, the thankless janitor who spent his tenure either cleaning up after Obama’s controversial asides or trying to make sense of the White House’s conflictual approach to foreign affairs, got his reward this week. For Hagel’s part, however, he does not seem prepared to allow the administration to frame him as the problematic element in his relationship with the president. A “senior defense official” told CBS reporter David Martin that Hagel “was fed up with micromanagement from the White House.”
Expect this back and forth in the press to continue, and likely to get worse in the coming weeks.
In the wake of a historic midterm defeat – the second for this administration – the White House has done everything it could to project unfazed strength. It was always ever a front, and the buttresses keeping the edifice of this administration horizontal are starting to buckle. The backbiting that has characterized today’s announcement of the resignation of Hagel is symptomatic of a condition that afflicts every lame duck administration. Despite Obama’s assurances to the contrary, his White House is running out of steam.