By Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 12:35 AM
News this week of the first departure of a Cabinet secretary from the Obama administration comes amid a wide-ranging effort under the new chief of staff, William M. Daley, to repair badly frayed relations between the White House and the Cabinet.
During the first two years of President Obama's term, the administration fully embraced just a few of his superstar picks - people such as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. But many more agency chiefs conducted their business in relative anonymity, sometimes after running afoul of White House officials.
Both sides were deeply disgruntled. Agency heads privately complained that the White House was a "fortress" that was unwilling to accept input and that micromanaged their departments. Senior administration advisers rolled their eyes in staff meetings at the mention of certain Cabinet members, participants said.
Obama himself said his advisers were relying on him too frequently as a messenger, rather than letting his appointees carry important themes to the country, senior administration officials said. And the president felt isolated. "One of the first things he said to me was, 'I want to see these people more often,' " Daley said in an interview.
Cabinet members also registered their grievances with Daley shortly after he arrived in January. "You hear the same thing: 'I don't think we're used well.I don't think we're consulted enough,' " Daley said. "Whether it's true or not, perception becomes reality, and I think there's a desire to feel more part of a team."
Now Obama is overseeing his first major change, nominating Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to become the next ambassador to China. The move would help fill a critical vacancy in Beijing. But White House officials said it also would shift Locke into a position that could make it easier for him to flourish: Although he never became a dominant voice on business during his time at Commerce and he took a back seat to other administration officials on the economy, Locke is well regarded in Chinese business and government circles.
The larger mission is to make the dealings between the Cabinet and the White House more functional, several senior officials said. Daley, a former commerce secretary himself, has been calling agency heads for input, asking about the process over the past two years - and promising that it will change.
At the same time, the White House recently created the position of Cabinet communications director, appointing media adviser Tom Gavin to the job. The goal, according to the official statement, is "to better coordinate with and utilize members of the Cabinet" and is a "high priority."
The extent of the dysfunction was described in nearly two dozen interviews over several months with White House advisers, agency officials and operatives who work with both. Almost all spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they could not freely discuss internal interactions for attribution. Cabinet members' staffs often responded to criticism only off the record, with details of the secretaries' complaints gleaned from their friends and others with whom they shared concerns.
Although their perspectives differed, both sides said the situation has improved recently because of the efforts of the interim chief of staff, Pete Rouse, and now Daley.
Strains between a White House and its Cabinet are nothing new; in 1979, President Jimmy Carter fired many Cabinet heads on a single day because of perceived disloyalty. But tensions have developed into a distinct pattern in the Obama administration, with what aides described as a multi-tiered system of star pupils, mediocre players and outright disappointments. In some instances, the problems stemmed more from staff squabbles than from complaints from Obama, whose concern seemed to be getting his staff to do a better job of delegating.
The top tier is prized, with Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner in good stead. So, too, is Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., even after some early angst over his decision to hold a controversial terrorism trial in New York. They head the traditional "big four," the original departments created by George Washington, with the heftiest portfolios. Additionally, aides said, Obama cherishes Duncan, who is a basketball buddy and a charismatic advocate.
Everyone else has had problems, to widely varying degrees. Some, such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, were criticized by White House officials as erratic spokesmen - in his case, after he said that the government would put a"boot on the neck" of the BP oil company during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. Shortly into that crisis, White House officials clamped down on who could speak in public about it, assigning prominent roles to then-press secretary Robert Gibbs and environmental adviser Carol Browner but rarely putting Salazar before the cameras after that.
Interior officials countered that tensions ran high throughout the crisis but that Salazar worked hard to meet White House demands.
On the business front, administration officials said they were sometimes disappointed not to be able to rely more heavily on the relevant Cabinet members to help fix their problems. Locke and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis have kept relatively low profiles - even at a time when the White House was trying to repair its relationship with the business community and grappling with a high unemployment rate.
It may be a matter of perception: When Obama held a meeting with top chief executives in December to try to mend relationships with business, Locke was not there. The commerce secretary also did not attend Obama's speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in early February. Locke had valid reasons - he was at a session of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade in Washington and then led a high-tech trade mission to India - but the absences reinforced the impression that he is "not a player," in the words of one senior Democratic official with direct knowledge of how the department works.
A Commerce Department official referred questions about Locke to a White House aide, who said, in his defense, that commerce secretaries rarely drive economic policy and that Locke had played an important role on the issue of corporate taxation. "He's played more of a role in developing policies relative to previous commerce secretaries," the aide said.
At the Labor Department, an official said Solis has been an effective spokeswoman on jobs, taking a key position when new numbers are released each month. But the official, like others, acknowledged that there has been room for improvement, saying, "I think you're going to see a change in how the Cabinet is utilized."
In several cases, the distrust has been mutual. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson came under fire internally for her performance during the BP oil spill - in particular, a senior official said, for her mixed messages on the wisdom of using dispersants in the gulf. EPA officials declined to comment for this article. But Jackson, according to several people in whom she has confided, has described a pervasive sense of exclusion among members of the Cabinet. Similarly, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has told associates that he felt he was having trouble breaking through on the president's economic messages because senior officials (including Geithner and former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel) were so dominant. An official from the agency declined to comment.
Part of the problem, people on both sides said, has been an abundance of issue specialists - the "czars" - who manage matters on the environment and the economy within the West Wing. "The White House loops people out. The czars keep people from getting in," said one senior Democratic official who has fielded such complaints from three agency heads. "The level of frustration is pretty high."
Even White House officials acknowledge that they have been at fault. When Rouse took over as interim chief of staff last fall, he made a point of telling agency heads that he would incorporate them more. "He said, 'We recognize that one thing we didn't do well enough in the first two years was to use you,' " one senior agency official said.
According to two administration officials, Cabinet secretaries complained to the new administration that Emanuel did not help them set priorities but instead only called to complain when things went wrong. "Rahm was always moving too fast, thought the Cabinet was useless, didn't have time for it, everything was full speed ahead - fast, fast, fast, can't stop to explain it to somebody," said one Democratic operative who is allied with Emanuel and still consults with the administration. By contrast, the operative said, "Daley comes with a different sensibility about how the Cabinet can be utilized."
Still, one senior White House aide said, Daley has told Cabinet members that the relationship is a "two-way street" and that "if they want more influence and involvement, then they have to do more."
Staff writer Ed O'Keefe contributed to this report.