In sharp contrast to the relative stability of the Bush White House, President Barack Obama has started to burn through his senior staff at a rate fast enough to be interesting.
It really doesn’t matter whether the departing members of his administration were pushed or if they jumped; the turnover is a clear indication that the people who count in the West Wing understand that things aren’t working.
These kinds of changes usually don’t start happening until after an election--even when they should. If it is true that, as National Journal asserts based on its latest polls, Obama has burned through his base to the point where “young people and minorities are all the president has left,” then there is a lot of work to be done to get things in fighting trim in time for the 2012 elections. Which means more changes are coming.
The new White House chief of staff, which press reports say will be longtime Obama hand Peter Rouse, probably has some ideas of changes he would like to make once he takes over. These are important--Rouse needs, if not his own team at least people who won’t be promoting themselves at his expense in the West Wing’s top jobs. But that’s only part of what needs to be done. For Obama to get his administration back on track he needs to make some changes in the cabinet as well--lest the opposition continue to use some of its more polarizing figures as symbols for policy failures.
One who almost certainly needs to go after the midterm election, if not before, is Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
An embarrassment from the beginning, Geithner never seemed to win the confidence of the financial markets. Getting rid of him would send the strongest possible signal that the White House recognizes the obvious: The stimulus approach to the nation’s economic problems has failed and that new ideas are needed.
Sacking Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the cabinet official most closely associated with the disastrous Gulf oil spill, is also probably a good idea.
Having failed to clean out the mess that was the Minerals Management Service before the crisis took root Salazar has also refused to back down from the economically ruinous offshore drilling ban. It’s an unpopular policy that is costing real people good jobs at good wages that cannot be changed or withdrawn until Salazar is gone.
With an eye to preventing future problems before they occur, the White House probably also needs to find a way to let Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius go--before the Republicans in the House can get her up to Capitol Hill for oversight hearings.
HHS put out a lot of misleading numbers during the Obamacare debate that might have damaged the bill’s prospects for passage and withheld other important information until after the law was passed. Someone needs to be called to account for this. It would be better for Obama if that someone was someone other than Sebelius.
Obama probably doesn’t need any more Republicans in his cabinet, which is just one reason to get rid of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
It’s not just that LaHood bungled the early phase of the Toyota safety investigation, telling Americans to stop driving Toyotas if they thought they were unsafe purely on the basis of anecdotal evidence we now know to have been misleading. The GOP majority in the House that everyone expects to see will almost certainly want to grill him about the stimulus moneys that appear to have gone missing--much of which was supposed to go to highway projects. Besides, outgoing Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley needs a good job once he leaves office.
Finally, Obama needs to start thinking about who his new secretary of state is going to be--not so much because he needs to fire Hillary Rodham Clinton as she is unlikely to want to stay. There are a lot of people who are looking to Mrs. Clinton to be the savior of the Democratic Party, seeing her as the perfect midpoint between the liberal incompetence of the Obama administration and the extremism of a Tea Party-led GOP. Having been inside the tent for two years she will now be even more dangerous outside it--but that’s not something Obama can control.
The handwriting is on the wall. How Obama reads it is anyone’s guess.