Presidents often need new energy and talent to refurbish their second terms. George W. Bush opted for such a shake-up in 2006, and it arguably saved his presidency. Barack Obama is now facing a similar moment, and there are signs he’s looking to make some personnel changes after the November congressional elections.
Presidents value loyalty, to be sure, and Obama must be feeling especially grateful for team players after publication this week of Leon Panetta’s scorching memoir. It’s a bitter irony that after assembling his famous “team of rivals” — strong, independent personalities such as Panetta, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton — Obama found himself second-guessed in memoirs by the former secretaries of defense and state. The next president may decide to include a nondisclosure form along with the oath of office for Cabinet hires.
Obama’s current team can’t be faulted for disloyalty. And if they all stay on board for the last two years, that would at least delay publication of their autobiographies. But loyalty aside, Obama appears to be interested in a talent infusion that would add depth and expertise; a model was his recent appointment of retired Gen. John Allen as special envoy for Iraq and Syria. More such top-level hires may be coming in an effort to widen the administration’s bandwidth.
“We are aware that the next two years will be transformative in the Middle East, the Iran relationship and Asia,” says a senior White House official. “The John Allen appointment symbolized a broader openness to bringing in the best people in the country to think through and manage these problems.”
The benefits that can come from new blood can be seen in Bush’s second term. In 2006, the Iraq war was going badly, the country was bitterly divided and policy decisions were not always being implemented. Bush’s chief of staff, Andrew Card, told the president he needed someone new running the White House.
Bush recruited Josh Bolten as chief of staff for his last 2½ years, and it proved an inspired choice. Out went Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, John Snow at Treasury and Porter Goss at the CIA. In came Gates, Henry Paulson and Michael Hayden — three of Bush’s best appointments.
Obama’s foreign-policy team needs help. National security adviser Susan Rice still suffers from unfair attacks over the Benghazi affair. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was similarly tarnished by a rough confirmation hearing. Secretary of State John Kerry has been a tireless advocate for Obama’s policies, but there’s inevitable tension between a strong secretary and a centralizing White House. CIA Director John Brennan is an experienced Arabist who can frame Middle East strategy, but he was wounded by an unfortunate fight with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the intelligence committee.
Overseeing this team is chief of staff Denis McDonough. His great virtue is his closeness to the president, but this can be a vice, too. He understands Washington as a longtime congressional staffer but lacks the management experience of running a company or a federal agency. A final key aide is senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, whose role in policy decisions is mysterious but clearly important. Her status as “first friend” may be reassuring for Obama but can fuzz lines of authority.
The Constitution won’t allow Obama to fire Vice President Biden. But after last week’s self-inflicted wound, in which the ever-garrulous Biden talked himself into a crisis with Turkey that required an embarrassing apology, Obama must have rolled his eyes. This was a flap he didn’t need.
As Obama considers his roster for the final two years, he can take comfort from the fact that recent policy decisions on combating the Islamic State have mostly been well handled. Obama used his leverage to force needed political changes in Iraq, he worked with Kerry to build a strong Arab and international coalition of support, and he wisely ignored congressional naysayers and second-guessers.
Strategic patience is essential against the Islamic State, counsels Stephen Hadley, a former national security adviser. “The pudding is barely in the oven. It’s too soon to put in a knife and see if it’s done.”
Obama has framed the right basic strategy for dealing with the Islamic State, and for many other issues, as well. But he appears to recognize that his administration needs new intellectual capital to implement these policies boldly and effectively in what’s left of his presidency. During his last two years in office, Obama needs to step on the accelerator, not the brake.
Read more about this topic: