Counterpoint: Why All the Steam about Obama’s Team?


rahm-obama-secret.jpgThis is a guest note by former John F. Kennedy Special Counsel and Adviser Theodore “Ted” Sorensen.
The piece in part responds to several critiques of the Obama White House management team, including essays by Edward Luce of the Financial Times, myself, and former Council on Foreign Relations President Leslie Gelb.
TWN wanted to share Sorensen’s thoughtful counterpoint to these perspectives with you.
This essay first ran at the great new blog, CenterLine, published by New York University’s Center on Law and Security.
— Steve Clemons

Why All the Steam about Obama’s Team?
Does the volley of slings and arrows aimed at the Obama White House staff, including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel – with even wise man Les Gelb calling for “a sweeping staff shakeup” ousting most of the principal players “to save his presidency” – mean that our president selected the worst and dumbest; or is this simply an overreaction in the national press and Democratic Party to the aberrational Senate election in Massachusetts?
I remember all too clearly 48-49 years ago when my colleagues on the Kennedy presidential team, previously called “the best and the brightest,” were the target of similar attacks, as most White House staffs in their first two years have been. It is easy to criticize. Mr. Gelb even condemned Obama’s “flagrantly foolish rhetoric,” making one wonder how he could ever have been elected.
The underlying premise is the claim that Obama’s first 15 months were a failure. Failure? The man who stemmed the initial hemorrhage of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, who raised our international standing from near zero (due to repeated torture and other violations of international law, and unilateral military interventions as a substitute for multilateral diplomacy) to a renewed level of widespread international respect, who obtained passage by the House of his first dozen or more legislative proposals? A failure? Similar epithets were hurled by pundits and political detractors at Kennedy and his team during and after his first year or two in office, when they asked:
Why is there no ‘grand design’ for global policy? Why is the president taking on all the international crises inherited from his predecessor? Why are his poll ratings not as high as they were soon after his election? The president is occasionally inconsistent, changing his mind or position; the president has not achieved all of his formidable objectives in one year; the president should not have raised expectations so high; the president is all speeches, no accomplishments, yet calling on us self-appointed experts very rarely; the president is relying more on principle than politics by seeking lofty goals instead of small accomplishments; why can’t his staff work more than 24 hours a day to return our calls?
After Kennedy left behind the first step toward arms control in the nuclear age, new success in the conquest of space as he literally reached for the moon, new legislative protection for the minimally paid, the mentally ill and challenged, plus a comprehensive civil rights program reversing centuries of discrimination, plus the Peace Corps, expanded world trade and a host of measures reviving the eroding protective networks of the Roosevelt/Truman New Deal/Fair Deal, no one was asking those questions. I predict they will not be asked about the Obama administration at its close in 2016.
Every staff has its flaws. Kennedy took pride in keeping his professional White House staff unusually lean, too lean to leak, too lean to be mean to each other and too lean to be unclean. I hope Obama’s team is not too large. Certainly, it is better than most and it appears, like Kennedy’s, to have fewer of the distracting feuds and factions that disrupted so many other presidencies in both parties. Like JFK’s “Irish Mafia,” Obama’s “Chicago crowd” has been singled out for scorn by those who seem unaware that – like Kennedy’s Irish-American political advisors – only a small part of the president’s team fit this description. Obama, like Kennedy, has earned the loyalty of his staff, defending them at every opportunity, demonstrating the all-too-rare quality of “loyalty down” that was not displayed by those predecessors in the Oval Office who did not hesitate to blame, deceive, and dismiss loyal staffers as handy scapegoats.
Another complaint today familiar to my ears is the demand that, “in order to get things done,” young amateurs should be replaced by aging veterans from earlier administrations (including those from earlier administrations noted for not getting things done). More than most of my fellow aging veterans, I know the extent to which the recurrent crises, emergencies, all-night and weekend sessions of White House employment require youthful energy.
Blaming the unprecedented negativity of Republican opposition leaders who prefer to see the nation fall than the president succeed on White House Chief of Staff Emanuel is fatuous. They may as well ask: Why can’t Obama, like Kennedy, have a Senate Republican leader like Everett Dirksen who supported Kennedy on big issues like nuclear test limitations and civil rights? It was former General Eisenhower who, as president, set the precedent for chiefs of staff, drawing upon the military command system and empowering Sherman Adams to screen virtually every piece of paper and person (other than the secretary of state and press secretary) entering the Oval Office.
Kennedy knew he needed no such rigorous hierarchy, and appointed himself as his own chief of staff. He once termed me his “chief of staff for ideas,” but that was an exaggeration – I had no authority over the national security adviser, press secretary, appointments secretary or congressional liaison team. Former Congressman Emanuel has all the gifts and guts to survive that difficult post; but like most university presidents, his responsibilities exceed his authority. He can no more direct all the many dukes in the White House kingdom (to say nothing of all the fiefdoms in the Cabinet departments) than a university president can control his faculty.
After a few legislative and political victories, once the Republicans have come to their senses, the current staff “punching bags” will look like sudden geniuses.
Complaints will continue. Some Democratic congressmen will still voice surprise that the White House has its own priorities. There will still be Democratic congressmen who think he’s been overly accommodating to Republicans on health care, Afghanistan, and the location of terrorist trials.
Some discontented leakers from the departments will grumble that the president is interfering with his government. Some journalists will gripe that their unprecedented access to interview all the leakers is curbed by a “culture of secrecy.” Almost all presidents lose ground in polls and House seats in their first two years. But a president and chief of staff criticized from both left and right must be doing something right.
To me, the most absurd of all is that some Obama staff members like David Axelrod are being called “too supportive, lovingly loyal” to the president. For 50 years I have tasted that same criticism, and I am proud of it. Highly placed turncoats in this and other countries over the years who paid more attention to their own agendas, memoirs, and ideologies eventually sank both their countries and their careers.
Since leaving the White House more than 46 years ago, I have observed that the average Washington pundit and New York dinner guest, equipped with hindsight, is always smarter than the president of the United States.
When President Kennedy was warned by a press conference in 1962-63 that his poll ratings had slipped below their former high of 70%, he replied in effect: “If I were still at 70% after a vigorous congressional session, I would feel that I had not been doing my duty.” Barack Obama has been doing his duty, and so has every member of his team.
— Ted Sorensen


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