White House moving to repair troubled relationship with Cabinet

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011

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.


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