WASHINGTON – Denis McDonough, the White House chief of staff, had a peculiar reaction to the Democrats’ defeat in the midterm elections, widely blamed on President Obama’s unpopularity.
NBC White House correspondent Chris Jansing asked the 44-year-old McDonough to name “one thing you can say to American voters they’re going to see that’s different given the message that they sent on Tuesday.”
McDonough’s reply: “They’re going to see Washington working better if this president has his way. That’s what he’s going to do.”
“How?” pressed the reporter.
“Well,” said McDonough, “we’re going to do it any number of ways.”
For example: by rubbing a rabbit’s foot, wishing upon a star, sprinkling Capitol Hill with fairy dust, and scouring the Mall for four-leaf clovers and heads-up pennies.
McDonough’s willful cluelessness about the message from the midterms is the latest evidence that Obama urgently needs new blood in his White House. There’s nothing wrong with McDonough, Valerie Jarrett, Susan Rice, Dan Pfeiffer or the others. The place is full of talent. What’s missing is a political peer of the president’s, one with the stature and the authority to tell him when he’s screwing up, the way Rahm Emanuel could. Without that, Obama has an administration of affirmation.
Much of the blame for the yes-men culture around Obama has been placed on a woman. Jarrett had back surgery last month, but the knives are still out for her. Politico magazine just published an article titled “Fire Valerie Jarrett.” And an extensively reported piece by Noam Scheiber in the New Republic uses the same 2011 photo of Obama and Jarrett lounging on a staircase (the Chicago chums go way back) but gives a smart assessment of the problem. The issue is not Jarrett per se (it’s good for a president to have friends nearby) but the lack of others to offset her power.
“Jarrett’s work behind the scenes served the president well so long as people like Larry Summers, Rahm Emanuel, and Robert Gibbs … remained inside the building,” Scheiber wrote. “She diversified the views he received without stifling internal debate. But then, one by one, the big personalities left.” And now, Scheiber reports, Obama no longer even meets daily with his top advisers, instead relying on informal conversations with Jarrett and McDonough. This does “less to check Obama’s inclinations” and makes him “even more persuaded of his righteousness as the years have gone on.”
One can imagine the new deliberative process in the West Wing:
Obama: I’m going to issue an executive order deporting Republican members of Congress.
Jarrett: Are you sure that’s a good idea?
McDonough: Should we check with the counsel’s office?
Obama: Nope, I’ve thought it through and this is what we’re doing.
Jarrett: Brilliant idea, sir.
McDonough: I’ll get the paperwork together.
Among modern administrations, Obama’s second-term decision-making sounds, ominously, most like Jimmy Carter’s. Carter essentially served as his own chief of staff and surrounded himself with loyalists while top aide Hamilton Jordan enjoyed unlimited access to Carter and the ability to choose his issues. That’s not unlike what Carol Felsenthal, author of the Politico article, said of Jarrett: “Her undefined role combined with what by all accounts has been almost unlimited proximity to the Obamas has proved a bad mix. She seems to isolate the president from people who might help him or teach him something.”
Of course, there is a danger in bringing in big personalities rather than loyalists, and Obama has suffered the consequences of his first-term “team of rivals” in the kiss-and-tell memoirs by Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates and, particularly, Leon Panetta. Yet he has done himself more harm filling top positions with loyalists.
McDonough, a long-time Capitol Hill hand, joined Obama’s staff in the Senate seven years ago and worked his way up through the administration. But his actions as White House chief of staff sometimes seem smaller than the job title. He was the one who let the world know that Obama was “quite angry” that an anonymous senior administration official had called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a bad word involving poultry, and he’s also the one who announced that Obama was “madder than hell” about health care delays for veterans. Recently, McDonough flew out to San Francisco to negotiate personally with Sen. Dianne Feinstein about redactions in a Senate report on CIA torture.
It wouldn’t be hard for Obama to bring in some high-profile talent. But that only works if the president wants somebody to challenge him and not just to cheer.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.