Last week, in a shake-up designed to arrest his falling poll numbers, President Obama brought in several new staffers. We’ve seen this before with Obama, and it ultimately didn’t change much. If anything, the current shake-up anchors the president even more firmly to his left-wing base and makes it more likely he will use legally suspect executive orders and rogue regulations to impose his will and go around Congress.
In early 2011, after Democrats received a “shellacking” in the midterm elections (to use Obama’s phrase), he brought in Bill Daley, a scion of the Chicago Machine that had kick-started Obama’s own political career, to be his new chief of staff. Daley, a former Commerce secretary under Bill Clinton, was a smooth salesman with ties to the business leaders Obama needed on his side to win the 2012 reelection campaign. Many onlookers predicted that Daley would help shift Obama toward the center. After all, in the middle of the debate over Obamacare, Daley had famously written a Washington Post op-ed titled “Democrats, reclaim your center.” All Democrats had to do to regain their political footing, he said in the op-ed, was “acknowledge that the agenda of the party’s most liberal supporters has not won the support of a majority of Americans — and, based on that recognition, to steer a more moderate course on the key issues of the day.”
But Daley — among other mistakes — ran afoul of Obama’s insular staff, especially the behind-the-scenes liberal powerhouse Valerie Jarrett. Only ten months later, he was pushed aside and replaced as chief of staff by Pete Rouse, who had worked for Obama since his days as an Illinois senator. Rouse eventually gave up the top staff job to Denis McDonough but remained as a top adviser. Last week, though, Rouse announced he would leave at the end of 2013, when a raft of new aides are slated to come aboard.
From this staff shake-up it’s clear there won’t be even a feint to the center. Last week’s budget deal in Congress bypassed Obama. The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward candidly told Fox News on Sunday that the budget deal came together only because “Obama was not part of the negotiations — he is not a good negotiator.” While Republican Paul Ryan and Democrat Patty Murray were hammering out a compromise budget, the Obama White House was desperately issuing retroactive “suggestions” to insurance companies to provide free health care to people who have lost their insurance thanks to Obamacare. You can bet that most insurers will follow the “suggestions,” given the White House’s veiled threats that it will view any non-compliance unfavorably when it comes to taking regulatory actions in the future.
Welcome to Obama’s New Power Grab, where the administrative state takes on a quasi-lawless form as the White House tries every scheme in the book (and some that aren’t in any book) to save Obamacare without having to negotiate changes with Congress — the old-fashioned American way of altering laws.
Certainly, John Podesta, the most well known of Obama’s new aides, will be helpful in this anything-goes strategy. Podesta is ostensibly on board merely for a one-year assignment focusing on climate and energy issues, but few believe he will stick to that knitting.
Podesta was chief of staff to President Clinton when, shortly before leaving office, he issued outrageous pardons to fugitive financier Marc Rich and other criminals. Podesta later founded the liberal Center for American Progress. Both during his tenure with Clinton and since, Podesta has been a vigorous proponent of stretching executive power to its outer limits. Earlier this year, he told the Washington Post that Obama’s future “path to success . . . is going to come through every single place that you can squeeze some authority which he has.” From striking down Obama-era EPA rulings to nullifying President Obama’s dubious “recess” appointments, the courts have increasingly rejected Obama’s overreaching. But Podesta wants to go even further in creating new executive powers.
In policy terms, Podesta is a leftist true believer, backing a single-payer government health-care system and raising environmental objections against the Keystone Pipeline with such vociferousness that the White House anounced Podesta would have to recuse himself from internal deliberations on that issue.
Another new Obama hire who will try to plug the leaks in Obamacare is Phil Schiliro, a former top aide to Democratic representative Henry Waxman of California, a co-author of Obamacare and the chief liberal cheerleader for expanding Medicare and Medicaid. Given his investment in Obama’s health-care law, don’t expect Schiliro to explore any compromises on the issue. Look instead for more evasive maneuvers to get Democrats past the 2014 elections.
The staff shakeup at the White House certainly could mean that more competent players are on deck, but it also increases the chance that we’ll see sweeping new assertions of presidential power and trench warfare with Congress. The White House will be in full campaign mode, even more than ever before. It’s going to be a very long three years until the next president is sworn in.
— John Fund is a national-affairs columnist for National Review Online.