Politics & Policy

Strange Goings-On at the White House

A tight-knit inner circle plays all politics, all the time, while Obama remains disengaged.

The recent spate of Washington scandals has some liberals finally confessing in public what many of them have said privately for a long time. The Obama administration is arrogant, insular, prone to intimidation of adversaries, and slovenly when it comes to seeing that rules are followed. Indeed, the Obama White House is a strange place, and it’s good that its operational model is now likely to be finally dissected by the media.

Joe Klein of Time magazine laments Obama’s “unwillingness to concentrate.”

Dana Milbank of the Washington Post tars him as a President Passerby who “seems to want no control over the actions of his administration.” Milbank warns that “he’s creating a power vacuum in which lower officials behave as though anything goes.” Comedian Jon Stewart says Obama’s government lacks real “managerial competence” and that the president is either Nixonian if he knew about the scandals in advance or a Mr. Magoo–style incompetent if he didn’t.

But it was Chris Matthews of MSNBC who cut even deeper in his Hardball show on Wednesday. A former speechwriter for President Carter, he wondered if Obama “really doesn’t want to be responsible day-to-day for running” the government. He savaged the White House for using “weird, spooky language” about “the building leadership” that must approve the Benghazi talking points. “I don’t understand the model of this administration: weak chiefs of staff afraid of other people in the White House. Some undisclosed role for Valerie Jarrett. Unclear, a lot of floating power in the White House, but no clear line of authority. I’ve talked to people who’ve been chief of staff. They were never allowed to fire anybody, so they weren’t really chief of staff.” He concluded that President Obama “obviously likes giving speeches more than he does running the executive branch.”

So if Obama is not fully engaged, who does wield influence in the White House? A lot of Democrats know firsthand that Jarrett, a Chicago mentor to both Barack and Michelle Obama and now officially a senior White House adviser, has enormous influence. She is the only White House staffer in anyone’s memory, other than the chief of staff or national security adviser, to have an around-the-clock Secret Service detail of up to six agents. According to terrorism expert Richard Miniter’s recent book, Leading from Behind: “At the urging of Valerie Jarrett, President Barack Obama canceled the operation to kill Osama bin Laden on three separate occasions before finally approving” the mission for May 2, 2011. She was instrumental in overriding then–chief of staff Rahm Emanuel when he opposed the Obamacare push, and she was key in steamrolling the bill to passage in 2010. Obama may rue the day, as its chaotic implementation could become the biggest political liability Democrats will face in next year’s midterm elections.

A senior Republican congressional leader tells me that he had come to trust that he could detect the real lines of authority in any White House, since he’s worked for five presidents. “But this one baffles me,” he says. “I do know that when I ask Obama for something, there is often no answer. But when I ask Valerie Jarrett, there’s always an answer or something happens.”

Last month, Time broke new ground when it decided to throw the spotlight on Jarrett’s influence, which the press till then had not much covered: The magazine named her one of the “100 most influential people in the world.” Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, gushed about Jarrett in an accompanying essay: “Above all else, however, and beyond all doubt, Valerie Jarrett is loyal.”

No one doubts that President Obama has the White House management structure he wants; he has populated it with trusted aides such as Jarrett whose loyalty he can count on. But it’s increasingly clear that this structure — supported by functionaries who are often highly partisan and careless — hasn’t served the country well and hasn’t received sufficient scrutiny from the media. That’s why many liberals are openly expressing concern over the “mini-Politburo” at the White House — the small number of people who have centralized White House decision-making. 

The Obama White House management team doesn’t share the bunker mentality of the Nixon White House (though there are similarities). Nor does it have the frat-house atmosphere of the early Clinton White House, or the “happy talk” air of unreality of the latter George W. Bush administration. But its “all politics, all the time” ethos demands scrutiny now that the scandals are mounting and its shortcomings are becoming all too clear.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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