Cathartic, perhaps. But dismissing Cabinet secretaries, senior agency officials or those even lower down the bureaucratic ladder carries political risk for a president — especially one who hopes that the technical flaws undercutting his signature domestic legislation will be fixed before the public relations problems get much worse.
“Generally, presidents are very bad at firing people,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who advised four presidents. “These things happen. But it reflects a mistake the president has made, and they don’t like to admit mistakes.”
Increasingly, Obama is being asked to do just that by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Last week, Republicans began
calling for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius
to resign or be fired, and now Democrats are joining the someone’s-got-to-go chorus.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) issued a statement this week calling the troubled rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s federal Web site “inexcusable” and added: “Somebody ought to get fired.” On Wednesday, Rep. Rick Nolan (D-Minn.) was even more direct, telling reporters that Obama should “man up, find out who was responsible and fire them.”
Obama is by political nature a pragmatist, and he has adhered closely to a fix-first-and-blame-later approach during the embarrassing launch of the online insurance exchange.
He also has overseen a concentration of decision-making power in the West Wing rather than dispersing it to the agencies. That means that many of those closest to him — and therefore less likely to be fired — are also those most responsible for many of the problems he has had to cope with.
At a Monday event in the Rose Garden, Obama expressed anger at no one in particular about the flaws in the Web site. He called in a “tech surge” of outside experts to fix problematic coding, while defending Sebelius and other government officials for not anticipating the problems.
“This president is looking for solutions, not scalps,” said Jennifer Palmieri, the White House communications director. “His own focus and his clear direction to all of us is to stay focused on getting implementation right.”
The connection between the power to fire and the willingness to do so has been a loose one for many presidents. Many, like Obama, come to office with little or no executive experience. Even those who have served as governors have often shown awkwardness and poor judgment in deciding when to jettison staff.
Ronald Reagan, a two-term California governor who has come to represent decisiveness in presidential leadership, wobbled when it came to personnel. His firing of Chief of Staff Donald Regan, at the behest of his wife, ended an embarrassing public feud between the onetime banking executive and the first lady. Regan found out from another administration official that he’d been dismissed.