Belmont Club

A Flock of Flunkies

Vanity Fair describes the process of governance in the Obama cabinet. He surrounds himself with Yes-Men and allows his political operatives to control cabinet secretaries. He is obsessed with messaging and almost terminally bored with detail.

With a few prominent exceptions. … Obama has surrounded himself mostly with a team of loyalists. …

They range from the very competent (Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security) to the perennially controversial (Eric Holder at Justice) to the underwhelmingly anonymous (could anyone but a union leader pick Labor Secretary Hilda Solis out of a lineup?). In the main, Obama relates to his Cabinet the way he relates to the rest of the world. “He’s a total introvert,” the former adviser told me. “He doesn’t need people.”

What does he need then? Vanity Fair continues.

The days when presidential Cabinets contained the likes of Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, or Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the Treasury, are long since gone. …

The sharp growth in the White House staff in the years since World War II has also meant that policy functions once reserved for Cabinet officers are now performed by top aides inside the White House itself. …

The administration prefers to offer up senior White House aides, over whom it has tighter control, and who may actually know more about the president’s real agenda. Obama’s Cabinet secretary, Christopher Lu, has been known to say that it’s his job to tell Cabinet members they can’t do things, one former colleague recalls, adding that there is a feeling in the White House that people in the Cabinet “are creating headaches for the president,” whether it’s Lisa Jackson promulgating a new rule at E.P.A. or Ray LaHood floating the idea of a mileage-based tax to pay for highway projects at Transportation or Eric Holder filing a reply brief—never mind the reality that it is the job of the E.P.A. administrator to promulgate rules, and of the attorney general to involve himself in court proceedings.

The real weakness of the Obama administration is that it is all spin and no substance. Initiative, honesty, and competence are not wanted at the White House. The Vanity Fair article describes President Obama’s boredom with details. “Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, may have a Nobel Prize in physics, but that counted for little when he once tried to make a too elaborate visual presentation to the president. Obama said to him after the third slide, as one witness recalls, ‘O.K., I got it. I’m done, Steve. Turn it off.'”

The moral of the story is that you should never show the president anything longer than two slides. You will bore him. Why give him War and Peace if the Cliff’s Notes version is available? Or maybe the Classics Illustrated version? Supply that instead.  This is where the “57 states,” “corpse-man” and “Polish death camps” fiascoes come from: the group of miserable and doltish advisers that surround him.

When the media took Obama’s skill at campaigning as evidence of his ability to govern, it was like concluding that just because a person knew how to operate a bulldozer he could operate on a brain tumor. The skills did not necessarily transfer. Perhaps the root cause of the administration’s woes is that it knows how to campaign, but is completely incompetent at governing.

The image one gets is that of an old-time political machine, where a bunch of operators slouch outside the office of the Boss, waiting to be sent on this errand or that, all the while occupying themselves with trivia, racing tame cockroaches across the floor and vying with each other to see who can hit the spittoon across the room. You can run Tammany Hall that way. Maybe even Chicago. But can you govern America in that fashion? Until the administration values competence over spin it will continue to tank.


Not more than 2 slides please

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