WASHINGTON – It’s musical chairs time in the Obama White House as several officials who served during the first four years of the administration pack their bags and a new set of faces moves in.
President Obama experienced an unusually stable cabinet during his first term. Only two of the 16 top cabinet posts – Defense and Commerce – changed hands. But that stability is drawing to a close.
An exodus of top administration officials, especially at the outset of a second term, is the norm for most presidencies. Only one cabinet member made it through the entire eight years of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, despite his reputation as a good boss – Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
Bush went through three attorneys general, three treasury secretaries, and four budget directors. But while Bush had only two chiefs of staff during his tenure, Obama already is working on number four: Denis McDonough.
There are some extenuating circumstances surrounding the departure of those who have served as Obama’s top traffic cop. The first and best known, Rahm Emanuel, left to become mayor of Chicago. His successor, William Daley, proved to be a bad fit and was replaced by Jack Lew, head of Obama’s Office of Management and Budget and onetime deputy to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Lew openly campaigned for and received Obama’s blessing to serve as Treasury secretary with the departure of incumbent Tim Geithner during the transition from the first to second term. He faced the Senate Finance Committee at his confirmation hearing today.
Lew doesn’t have the sort of resume usually associated with the nation’s top financier, exhibiting only flimsy experience dealing with Wall Street and international economics. He does, however, provide a hands-on experience with fiscal policy as a former budget director, a hint, perhaps, of a new direction for the administration as it moves away from addressing the financial crisis of 2008 and concentrates on wrestling with Congress over taxes and spending.
Lew is credited with brokering a deal that averted a government shutdown in 2011 and is considered a strong supporter of raising taxes on the wealthy to close the national debt.
“Over the past year I’ve sought Jack’s advice on virtually every decision that I’ve made, from economic policy to foreign policy,” Obama said. “One reason Jack has been so effective in this town is because he is a low-key guy who prefers to surround himself with policy experts rather than television cameras. And over the years, he’s built a reputation as a master of policy who can work with members of both parties and forge principled compromises.”
Geithner noted that Lew is “committed to defending the safety net for the elderly and the poor. He understands what it takes to create the conditions for stronger economic growth and broader economic opportunity. And he understands that to govern responsibly is to govern with a recognition that we have limited fiscal resources.”
While Lew’s knowledge of the budget process probably earned him the nomination, it also could prove problematic for his confirmation. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, already has said Lew “must never be secretary of the Treasury,” noting that he is “the architect of two of the worst budgets in American history” and that he once offered testimony on an administration spending plan that was “so outrageous and false that it alone disqualifies.”
Sessions isn’t alone. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with the Democrats, also has announced his opposition from the left, expressing concern over Lew’s dedication to preserving programs like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.
McDonough also appears to be an unconventional choice to replace Lew as chief of staff. He comes in from the national security/foreign affairs side with very limited experience on the domestic side of the ledger. But he has essential Capitol Hill ties, having worked at one point for former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, of South Dakota.
Unlike many other senior advisers, McDonough is counted among the president’s closest friends, dating back to 2007 when he joined the staff of then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois as chief foreign policy adviser. He held a similar position during the 2008 presidential campaign.
McDonough, who eventually rose to the position of deputy national security advisor in the White House, is one of those depicted in the now famous situation room photo keeping tabs on the Navy SEAL operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
More than anything else, perhaps, McDonough got the call for the coveted chief of staff post, which doesn’t require Senate confirmation, because of his close personal relationship with Obama. Another friend and confidant, Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama who goes back with him to the Chicago days, was thought to be under consideration for the post but it was determined that she best serves the president in her current behind the scenes capacity where she can, as one White House aide put it, “stomp out fires.”
The Obama-McDonough relationship was on display during the press conference announcing the appointment when he turned to the new chief of staff and said, “Denis, you’re not just one of my closest friends, but you’re also one of my closest advisers, and like everybody here I cannot imagine the White House without you.”
He added, “I know you’ll always give it to me straight, as only a friend can — telling me not only what I want to hear, but more importantly what I need to hear to make the best possible decisions on behalf of the American people.”