Shutdown transforms White House operations, foreign policy outreach

October 4, 2013

On normal days, the White House boasts a research team of about 10 people, which can pull cringe-worthy quotes and opponents’ voting records at a moment’s notice to provide the president’s aides with political ammunition.

But now the office consists of just one person, director Ben Holzer, who is the only one left in the wake of this week’s government shutdown.

The White House is working with a skeleton crew as it engages in one of the biggest political fights of President Obama’s presidency, curtailing its operations as it battles with congressional Republicans who do not face the same level of cuts. First lady Michelle Obama’s busy fall schedule has come to a halt, while the crew of ushers, housekeepers, groundskeepers, chefs and others who care for the 132-room presidential mansion is down from 90 to 15.

Beyond Washington, the staffing shortage is also limiting the ability of President Obama and his top aides to engage internationally at a time when he is hoping to make progress on key foreign policy priorities in his second term.

Late Thursday, the White House canceled the president’s trip to Indonesia and Brunei, where he had planned to attend two major summits, including the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) gathering. While Secretary of State John F. Kerry will lead the delegation instead, White House press secretary Jay Carney said the fact that Obama won’t be there “sends the wrong message to the world.”

“There are consequences to this, and it’s unfortunate,” Carney said. “This is not good for America, it’s not good for our economy.”

On Friday, U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman also canceled negotiations scheduled for next week in Europe because of “financial and staffing constraints” imposed by the government shutdown.

The partial government shutdown, which took effect early Tuesday after Republicans attempted to scale back Obama’s health-care law, cut White House staff by 75 percent, leaving 436 of 1,701 employees on the job.

Some of the president’s main congressional foes haven’t been forced to cut as deeply because they have more flexibility on how much to shrink their offices.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who led the push to defund the new health-care law in exchange for funding the government, has furloughed about 40 percent of his staff, while House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has sent roughly half his staff home.

Other lawmakers have made deeper cuts: Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) furloughed half his employees in Washington and his entire state staff except his southern Nevada director. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) cut his staff from 44 to 13.

“Each member is given discretion about their own staff,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck wrote in an e-mail.

Within the Obama administration, the shutdown’s effects have often reverberated in unexpected ways. On Wednesday, an official from the International Monetary Fund called the White House Council of Economic Advisers, hoping to schedule a future appointment with Jason Furman, the panel’s chairman. Furman, one of four people still working in the office, answered the phone himself; IMF staffers were soon buzzing about a government in such disarray that one of its top economists has to answer his own phone.

One U.S. ally in the Persian Gulf complained this week that the shutdown appeared to have delayed visas for its delegation to the Board of Governors meeting at the IMF and World Bank next Friday, according to a person familiar with the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

State Department spokeswoman Katherine Pfaff declined to discuss specific cases but said the process was funded by fees not affected by the shutdown.

Dennis Ross, a counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who served as a senior Middle East adviser to Obama from 2009 to 2011, said the president needs to combat the prevailing view overseas that Americans are “weary and wary of” international entanglements and that the U.S. political system is incapable of tackling major problems.

“The combination of that perception of weariness and wariness, and the current political dysfunction, will create an impression that the U.S. is less capable of being active on the world stage,” Ross said.

Several foreign officials said they understood, but regretted, the president’s last-minute cancellation of his Asia trip.

“Without Obama, you can imagine how disappointed we are,” said Tifatul Sembiring, the information minister in APEC host Indonesia, according to Reuters. “We could hardly imagine he wouldn’t come.”

As for the East Wing, where the Obama family lives, officials would not comment on the shutdown’s impact.

“It certainly tests your operational skills,” said Anita McBride, who served as director of White House Personnel under two presidents and oversaw brief shutdowns in the Reagan administration.

“I remember it being very quiet in the house,” she said.

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