One of the enduring narratives of the Obama administration is that of a so-called Team of Rivals presidential Cabinet -- the idea that the best and brightest would be brought in (and listened to) whether or not they were part of Obama's campaign inner circle. But Chuck Hagel's "resignation" as defense secretary is the latest sign that the Team of Rivals idea is effectively over -- if it ever really existed in the first place.
Here's how the New York Times's Helene Cooper, who broke the news, wrote about the move:
A respected former senator who struck a friendship with Mr. Obama when they were both critics of the Iraq war from positions on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Hagel has nonetheless had trouble penetrating the tight team of former campaign aides and advisers who form Mr. Obama’s closely knit set of loyalists.
The second half of that sentence -- "had trouble penetrating the tight team of former campaign aides and advisers who form Mr. Obama’s closely knit set of loyalists" -- could be written about dozens of top officials who have come and gone over the six years of the Obama presidency. While Obama got huge amounts of praise for persuading his former rival Hillary Rodham Clinton to serve as Secretary of State in his first term, her heavily political memoir of that time nonetheless made clear the times she differed with him and his inner circle on policy.
And, as Obama's presidency wore on -- and he won a second term -- he almost abandoned the idea of surrounding himself with people who actively disagreed with him. In fact, the decisions to nominate Hagel at the Pentagon, John Brennan at the CIA, John Kerry at the State Department and Jack Lew at Treasury at the start of his second term were widely considered evidence of the president's belief that he needed loyalists around him as he sought to build a second-term legacy. As The Washington Post's Scott Wilson wrote at the time:
The nominations underscore how little time Obama has left to accomplish an enduring governing legacy, and that on-the-job training, political drama and the unpredictability he discovered in some of his outside-the-Beltway nominees last time around have no place in a second-term administration. Nearly all of the men — and so far they are all men — have been with Obama, one way or another, since his first presidential campaign or early days in office.
“Unlike the first term, which was often referred to as a team of rivals, I think this is going to be more like a band of brothers,” said Karl F. Inderfurth, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration.
It is not an uncommon approach for second-term presidents to take. But it leaves Obama vulnerable to criticism, including from his supporters, that he is burrowing deeper into an insular inner circle rather than reaching out for new people and their ideas about how to work most effectively with a sharply divided Congress.
That trend has only accelerated in the time since Wilson wrote that piece almost 20 months ago. Obama has been hit with a series of controversies foreign and domestic -- think Ebola, ISIS, the VA, etc. -- that have not only succeeded in sinking his approval ratings (and cost his party big-time at the ballot box) but also furthered the hunkering-down-with-loyalists strategy that Wilson described in January 2013.
So, was the Team of Rivals ever a real thing? Or was it a mythology created by Obama and a willing media? The obvious "rivals" were Clinton and Bob Gates, who had served as defense secretary in George W. Bush's second term and whom Obama kept on. In other key jobs, Obama went with longtime loyalists such as Eric Holder for attorney general, Tim Geithner at Treasury and Arne Duncan at the Education Department. (Obama also tried to put a loyalist -- Tom Daschle -- at the Department of Health and Human Services, but his nomination failed.) And the president's key inner core -- David Axelrod, Dan Pfeiffer and Valerie Jarrett to name three -- was always at the center of every decision and, in many ways, superseded the people he put in the Cabinet.
That consolidation of power into a select few top aides -- and the related powering-down of the Cabinet -- wasn't unique to Obama. Bush had his "Iron Triangle" of advisers -- Joe Allbaugh, Karen Hughes and Karl Rove -- who were considered the final voices on many policy decisions.
But, remember that one of the key arguments Obama made when campaigning in 2008 was that he represented a break from the sort of buddy-buddy government management style that Bush symbolized for many Americans. The very idea of the Team of Rivals concept grew out of Obama's campaign promises to run a meritocracy in direct contrast to how he saw the Bush White House run.
The arc of Obama's presidency when it comes to who he listens to most, however, appears to be not all that dissimilar from the one he rose to prominence critiquing. It turns out that in politics, keeping your friends close and your enemies (or at least rivals) closer isn't as important as keeping your friends close.