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Time for accountability at the White House

White House social secretary Desirée Rogers at the arrival ceremony for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November.
White House social secretary Desirée Rogers at the arrival ceremony for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in November. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)
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By Sally Quinn
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Now it turns out that there was a third uninvited guest at the White House state dinner for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, this one a member of the Indian delegation. It was enough of a shock that the would-be stars Tareq and Michaele Salahi had crashed. But a third? The Salahi story may have been delicious, but the implications of the appalling breach of security are immense. The president could have been assassinated. And had that happened, the Office of the White House Social Secretary would have been as culpable as the Secret Service.

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One of the first lessons any administration needs to learn is that somebody has to take the hit for whatever goes wrong. If another culprit is not identified, the president gets the blame. One incident after another in the past few months has shown that members of this administration would rather lay low and let Barack Obama be the target. This has got to stop.

Many in Washington wondered why the director of the Secret Service, Mark Sullivan, did not resign over the state dinner security breach. At least Sullivan testified before Congress on the subject. White House social secretary Desirée Rogers came under fire after the Salahi scandal erupted. From the start, Rogers was an unlikely choice for social secretary. She was not of Washington, considered by many too high-powered for the job and more interested in being a public figure (and thus upstaging the first lady) than in doing the gritty, behind-the-scenes work inherent in that position. That Rogers stayed and that the White House refused to allow her to testify before Congress reflected badly on the president. He, not a member of his staff, ended up looking incompetent. Although it has emerged that a State Department protocol error is to blame for the presence of a third uninvited guest, both Rogers and Sullivan should step down.

The administration's problem extends beyond these failings. When White House counsel Greg Craig was fired over disagreements about the timing and publicity of closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay, many Obama supporters were troubled. Craig was one of the most admired and trusted men in Washington. His firing was a turning point for a lot of people, who began to question the president's judgment. Whether or not the Craig decision was the president's idea, somebody else should have taken the hit for it. Although Obama had pledged during the campaign to close Guantanamo by year's end, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Craig clearly had serious disagreements over how the issue was playing politically, and there were known to be strong personality clashes between the two. It was Emanuel who was responsible for Craig's departure. He should have taken the hit and spared the president so much bad feeling.

Emanuel, the most political animal in this town, also should understand that keeping Rogers on as social secretary reflects upon the president's judgment. It's possible that he has other considerations. Emanuel is said to have told people that the chief-of-staff role is an 18-month job and that he is considering a run for mayor of Chicago. And Rogers is a major social and political player in the Windy City.

The attempted Christmas Day attack on a Northwest Airlines flight bound for Detroit brought another example of the president taking the blame. In the first interviews after the incident, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that "the system worked." But the system did not work, and her words reflected poorly on the president. The rampant finger-pointing since then has made Obama look weak and vacillating. Who was responsible? The CIA? The director of national intelligence? The counterterrorism people? The Department of Homeland Security? All of the above? There needed to be some reckoning. Someone should have taken the blame and resigned. Even if the person who did so was not solely culpable, the perception would be that it was not the president who screwed up. Emanuel knows well that if a head does not roll, it will only hurt Obama's reputation more.

Obama has had some real successes this fall. He did a masterful job of bringing together incredibly disparate positions to craft a strategy for Afghanistan. He put himself on the line and will probably come up with a reasonable health-care plan. He left Copenhagen with at least promises of cooperation from other world powers regarding climate change. But he is not getting credit that he deserves because he is being ill served by those around him who will not step up as needed and take the fall for him.

The president needs to start making that happen. The first step would be to accept the resignations of Sullivan and Rogers today.

Sally Quinn writes a weekly column for The Post and is a moderator, with Jon Meacham, of On Faith, an online conversation on religion .


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