Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Secrets of the Chicago Guys in Obama’s Dysfunctional Cabinet

A look inside “the worst job in Barack Obama’s Washington”

Photo: Courtesy of The White House

In recent history, second terms have proven such a curse that one wonders why presidents even want one—Nixon and Watergate, Reagan and Iran Contra, Clinton and Monica Lewinsky/impeachment, and now Obama and Obamacare, Benghazi, and, likely, more to come.

Yet the miserable second term is often a bonanza for journalists because insiders have little to lose by talking.  For his long article, “Locked in the Cabinet: The worst job in Barack Obama’s Washington,” Glenn Thrush, a White House reporter for Politico, interviewed 50 current and former cabinet secretaries, White House staffers, and executive branch officials, including at least two more or less local cabinet secretaries: Peoria’s former transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, and Chicago’s current education secretary, Arne Duncan. 

The result, at least to a political junkie like me, is irresistible. (If the main title rings a bell it’s because Politico swiped it from Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s labor secretary, who used it for his memoir of his frustrating four years in Washington.) 

Thrush’s dissection of the inner workings of the Obama cabinet appears in the first issue of the in-print and on-line bimonthly Politico Magazine. Its editor, Susan Glasser, explains that the offshoot aims to “break out of the news cycle” and present long-form pieces with “context” and “insight” and “perspective.”  She promises that the on-line version will be updated daily.

Here’s some of the article’s best stuff, offered with the caveat that I’m including only those nuggets that have a Chicago angle. 

Brilliant Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu came to DC from California to be Energy Secretary in Obama’s first term. He was credited by Obama with saving him (and us) from the disaster of the BP oil spill by designing the cap that finally, after repeated failures, stopped the flow—and the footage of oil soaked sea birds that led the evening news for weeks on end.  Obama’s aides weren’t impressed.

Yes, Chu obviously had a high IQ,  but his “political IQ” was “appallingly low.” On a trip with Obama to Trinidad and Tobago, Chu “took the podium” to tell the assembled that their “tiny island nation” might soon be under water. He blamed global warming (rising oceans and increasingly severe hurricanes) for his assertion that “The island states… some of them will disappear.” Chu threw the White House—which wanted to focus on jobs and the economy, not global warming—off message. Chu had just finished speaking when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel called and told Obama aide Jim Messina, “if you don’t kill [Chu], I’m going to.”  

Thrush writes that the President’s staffers—Rahm, for example—treated most cabinet secretaries as “a nuisance.” He quotes LaHood, who left after the first term against the President’s wishes: “If your question is: Did the president rely a lot on his Cabinet as a group of advisers? No, he didn’t.” Using stats from CBS News White House reporter Mark Knoller, who obsessively keeps count of everything White House-related, Thrush estimates that the Obama cabinet met once every three months—and when it did, the agenda was “not much more than ritualistic team-building exercises.”  

One of the few success stories in Thrush’s telling, LaHood succeeded because he added value in an area in which Obama was particularly unskilled. The former Republican congressman was “…deployed to lobby his ex-colleagues on Capitol Hill and act as a regular-guy surrogate charged with selling the stimulus to Middle America. `I’m not going to be one of those people who is ever going to whine about the fact that they didn’t pay enough attention to me.  I thought that was a pretty good thing that they weren’t micromanaging my department, so I just went out and did my job.’”

Thrush describes the Obama cabinet as “a restless nest of ambition, fits-and-starts achievement and power-jockeying under a shadow of unfulfilled promise.” During the 2008 campaign, Obama pledged that his cabinet would be driven by ideas, innovation and results.  He told a reporter for Time magazine, “I don’t want to have people who just agree with me…. I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone.”

Instead, he got a cabinet—except for the high-prestige positions at State, Defense, and Treasury—largely chosen by his staff and herded and controlled by “ferocious gatekeepers such as first-term chief of staff Emanuel.” But not even Rahm could keep track of all the moving parts.  Obama “…. was drowning in data and chicken-pecked by aides asking for input. He privately groused that Emanuel was overwhelming him with requests to make decisions, so he issued a standing order to Emanuel and all future chiefs of staff… `Cut down on the number of decisions I have to make.’”

Obama had a special place in his heart for a couple of his cabinet secretaries, both of whom appear likely to stay through the second term. The Chicago guy is education secretary Arne Duncan, an Obama “basketball buddy” about whom the President seems almost protective.   According to Thrush, Obama assured Duncan early on, “Don’t worry about the politics. Do what you think is right… I’ll handle the politics.”

Duncan retains a gee-whiz midwestern character.  When asked by Thrush for “the most important moment at a cabinet meeting,” Duncan recalled, “it’s a surreal experience sitting there with Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta—world-class leaders. That hasn’t sort of gone away. It’s like, do I really belong here?”

The other is Attorney General Eric Holder, New York-born and reared, who, with his wife, became close friends with Barack and Michelle and, Thrush writes, dined at the White House twice a month. Holder has caused Obama a world of trouble—think “Fast and Furious,” apparently signing off on the wiretapping of reporters, and backing the moving of terrorism trials to New York City. And early on, Holder displayed a tin ear for politics. In February 2009, as the economy tilted toward implosion and Obama was “trying to sell a skeptical country on his massive $787 billion stimulus package,” Holder gave a speech in which he observed, “In things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”  

According to Thrush, Rahm never wanted Holder as Attorney General, pushing instead for Janet Napolitano (recently resigned as secretary of Homeland Security in favor of becoming president of the University of California; she wanted Holder’s job but grew tired of waiting).  But both Obama and his and Michelle’s close friend and top adviser, Valerie Jarrett, overruled Emanuel and other aides, including David Axelrod. Because of her unfettered and after-hours access to the President, Thrush writes, “she soon earned the sobriquet `Eric’s appeals court.’”

Emanuel, for his part, chewed Holder out “…during an exchange that included a fair share of Emanuel’s patented F-bombs.”

Emanuel could have saved the profanities because Holder had friends in high places. Still, he, Axelrod, and press secretary Robert Gibbs attempted “… to install a couple of handpicked staffers in Holder’s office… to monitor policy and edit his public utterances.” That ploy failed after Holder appealed directly to Obama. “At least once, Holder took the unusual step of dialing Obama on Air Force One to litigate a dispute with Emanuel.”

As usual, Rahm comes off as a wise guy. Thrush describes “the boyish” HUD secretary Shaun Donovan trying, during a cabinet meeting, “to transact serious business, only to be reminded that it was neither the time nor the place. [When Donovan] offered handouts about a complicated housing subsidy program, Obama jabbed, half-joking, `Oh, Shaun, I see you were that kid in school.’ Emanuel quickly added, `Maybe I’ll take his lunch money.’”

And as usual, Rahm’s replacement, Bill Daley, comes off as somewhat ineffectual. Thrush describes “…the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement” in early 2012 when Interior Secretary Ken Salazar signed off on plans by the U.S. Park Police to clear protestors from two “federally owned parks” near the White House.  “When Daley learned on local TV of the plan to raid the parks, he called the interior secretary’s cellphone. `Cut that out now! Make them stop! You’re going to cause a shitstorm,’ yelled Daley. Salazar played a trump card:… the power to drag the president into the story, backed by the implied threat to resign in protest. `Bill,’ Salazar said, `if the president wants me to do this, he needs to call me directly and ask.’ Daley hung up. Obama never called.”

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