The Campaign Spot

Obama’s Cabinet: The One Place Americans Can’t Get Laid Off or Fired

From the Tuesday edition of the Morning Jolt . . . 

Obama’s Cabinet: The One Place Americans Can’t Get Laid Off or Fired

Hey, remember when we used to joke that Obama was always throwing people under buses?

In USA Today, political science professor Ross Baker notes the strangely persistent presence of Kathleen Sebelius at the Department of Health and Human Services, and examines how rare it is for President Obama to directly fire anyone.

People have come and gone in Obama’s five years in office, but most were urged to jump rather than wait to be pushed. Both generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus knew they were doomed and tendered their resignations. Early in Obama’s first term, Social Secretary Desiree Rogers was urged to resign after two unauthorized guests were admitted to a state dinner, and environment adviser Van Jones stepped aside under pressure when some of his controversial writings surfaced. But not all officials who are under fire agree to face-saving devices.

The explanation usually offered by the Obama folks on background is that firing cabinet members or other staffers is usually perceived as a panic move. That person has to be replaced, and the replacement usually takes weeks or months or even a year to get up to speed. And Obama’s staffers are quick to point out he’s never going to be bullied into firing anyone by a Beltway media that he insists he ignores.

Okay, but Sebelius still managed and directed perhaps the biggest and most consequential cluster-you-know-what in American domestic-policy history. She helped craft a policy that was sold with PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” and the Washington Post Fact-Checker’s biggest Pinocchio of the Year. What’s more, if Obama is telling the truth, he was kept in the dark about the unfolding disaster until a week after launched. She still isn’t giving straight answers. If all of that hasn’t earned a dismissal, what does?

We know that Obama isn’t particularly close to anyone in his cabinet; Politico called serving in Obama’s cabinet “the worst job in Washington.”

The staffers who rule Obama’s West Wing often treat his Cabinet as a nuisance: At the top of the pecking order are the celebrity power players, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to be warily managed; at the bottom, what they see as a bunch of well-intentioned political naifs only a lip-slip away from derailing the president’s agenda. [Energy Secretary Steven] Chu might have been the first Obama Cabinet secretary to earn the disdain of White House aides, but he was hardly the last.

“We are completely marginalized . . . until the [s-word] hits the fan,” says one former Cabinet deputy secretary, summing up the view of many officials I interviewed. “If your question is: Did the president rely a lot on his Cabinet as a group of advisers? No, he didn’t,” says former Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

It’s hard to believe Obama really thinks of Sebelius or anyone else in his cabinet as indispensable.

Of course, Obama’s not the first president to demand loyalty from his staff and repay it in kind. George W. Bush was loyal to “his guys” and “his gals.” That was one factor in how Harriet Miers came to be nominated by the Supreme Court.

The advantages of the Bush-Obama loyalty approach are obvious, but let’s imagine the opposite. Imagine you had a president who wasn’t afraid to fire any member of the cabinet who turned into a liability. Imagine a president bold enough to say he likes being able to fire people for bad service. Imagine a president known for cutting people loose, quickly and coolly, after any massive foul-up with big consequences.

Don’t you think that might cut down on the number of massive foul-ups with big consequences?


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