Shaping the future with today’s choices.
The presidency of Barack Obama is dangerously close to one term president territory. Events, the nature of the opposition and both strategic and tactical White House errors brought President Obama to this point. Like a sailing ship clawing away from the rocks on a lee shore, the path out of the corner the Administration is caught in is very very narrow.
That path — the big reset — requires three things: (1) a reorganized White House with, first of all, a new Chief of Staff — the subject of this blog; (2) an audacious economic strategy that the President is determined to run with for the next two years — the subject of the next blog; (3) a clear understanding by the White House of how it plans to fight and win some inevitable impending battles — my last blog on this topic. In the absence of such a reset odds are this is a one term presidency. I went through one of those, they are no fun at all.
There should be little doubt that this presidency is in trouble. The November elections were a disaster. The previous losses in Virginia and Massachusetts were troubling. The overall mood of the country is not favorable. The economy is not recovering fast enough to bring employment down far enough. Political finesse and strategic/tactical mastery have not been hall marks of this White House’s management — until, to my surprise, the lame duck session; and the hurdle for the next two years will be higher. And the electoral map is a big problem. I cannot see — at the moment — how the President wins Florida, North Carolina, or Virginia, but without these states he cannot get to 270 electoral votes. And, I forgot, his base — the left of the democratic party — now hates him.
The first thing the President must do is find himself a new chief of staff. This is not said with any disrespect for the present acting chief of staff — Peter Rouse. He is said to be a fine man and he certainly did not cause the current problems of the President — in fact the successful lame duck session is probably due to him — but he also cannot solve them. He deserves a serious role but not chief of staff. This White House is a highly comfortable, deeply-pleased-with-itself culture of true Obama believers. At its best — in the Rahm days — it was completely transactional. It has never been strategically managed, and as a result has never had any apparent strategy. People I trust who are in a position to know emphasize that it is not well organized, and shows little apparent concern with accountability. It is composed, essentially, of long time Obama insiders. Another insider will find it hard to confront these problems. (Nor is it clear an outsider can solve them, he or she could be cut to ribbons by the rest of the staff.)
To cope with all of this a new chief of staff has to have the following characteristics: first, he must have sufficient stature to stand up to all of the status quo arguments he will get, and still make the tough choices that are required. A lot of these are going to be about people. Second, his experience has to be managerial and, ideally, executive branch. This is not a task for a former Congressperson. Every instinct that background fosters is wrong for now. Third, he must have the experience to understand that the Executive Branch and the Congress – even the democrats in Congress – are different. Think permanent hard nosed negotiations. Fourth, he must be able to (and temperamentally willing to) manage the Cabinet. And, finally, he has to be able to stand up to the President.
This set of skills is not easy to find. I can think of two obvious candidates: Erskine Bowles and Leon Panetta, both of whom were wonderful chiefs of staff. I suspect they do not want to do it twice but President Obama needs someone with similar skills. But when he finds someone of that caliber he will be asked the obvious question: “what is the job?” That means: is this intended to be a role that pursues modest changes in the current course or is the President committed to real change? I hope the President’s answer is the second.
Roosevelt Institute Senior Fellow Bo Cutter is formerly a managing partner of Warburg Pincus, a major global private equity firm. Recently, he served as the leader of President Obama’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) transition team.