A reshuffling of President Barack Obama’s staff looks all but certain after Tuesday’s congressional elections, which are likely to bring humbling losses to his Democratic party and could add to pressure on him to reboot his presidency.
Forecasters say that Republicans, who have made Obama’s unpopularity a top issue in the elections, are in a strong position to capture the six seats they need to take over the Senate from Democrats. They are also expected to expand their majority in the House of Representatives.
But current and former White House aides say that even if those predictions prove correct, Obama will likely resist calls to clean house for the final two years of his administration, a departure from the dramatic makeovers quickly ordered by many of his predecessors after similar setbacks at the ballot box.
Even slow-motion staff turnover could add some new talent to an inner circle that has been criticized as too insular. But it remains to be seen whether new blood would be enough to help a diminished president overcome Washington gridlock and push through new initiatives to burnish his legacy.
At the same time, there are doubts whether Obama will respond with what many see as an even more critical remedy: altering his cloistered leadership style to deal with the new reality on Capitol Hill and cascading crises abroad.
The president, known for his cautious “no-drama Obama” persona, may be reluctant to make a fundamental course change for the last quarter of his tenure, according to people inside and outside the administration.
“There will always be a staff change here or there,” particularly among people who have served for a long time, said Jay Carney, Obama’s former press secretary. But he added, “It’s just not his style to do it … I wouldn’t expect a big change.”
But both supporters and critics say recent stumbles in the handling of the Ebola crisis and a halting strategy against Islamic State underscore the need for major changes within the White House “bubble,” where policy decisions have become concentrated to a degree seen as almost unprecedented.
“He should consider reviving the ‘team of rivals’ approach,” said Jane Harman, a former California congresswoman regularly consulted by the White House. “Having people with different opinions in the room, that would be very helpful.”
LOYAL TO HIS LOYALISTS
However, Obama, famously loyal to those who have been loyal to him, has shown an aversion to firing senior staffers. Most of those who have left since he took office went voluntarily.
That may still be the case even as the predicted midterm losses sink in with his West Wing team, many of whom are exhausted after nearly six years of governing.
But there is another, albeit less likely, scenario. With lame-duck status looming, Obama – his approval ratings languishing in the low 40-percent range – may calculate that he has little to lose by making sweeping staff changes, which could send a message that he is serious about making a fresh start, one former insider said.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough has already quietly asked senior aides to tell him if they plan to stay onboard for Obama’s final two years in office.
A longtime Obama confidant, McDonough himself is the object of growing speculation. His departure would suggest Obama is doing more than just tinkering with the makeup of his staff.
McDonough has made clear he prefers to stay and Obama won’t send him packing, people close to the president say. But no one is ruling out that McDonough could decide on his own to leave.
There has been speculation that Ron Klain, recently named as Obama’s Ebola “czar,” might be in line to succeed McDonough. But Klain, who has a long history within the administration, would not represent any real change from the president’s preference for promoting trusted insiders.
Obama may be mindful that the last time he revamped his White House staff, after the “shellacking” suffered in the 2010 midterms, the results were far from glowing. Former banker Bill Daley, brought in for a more pro-business approach but never able to penetrate the Obama inner circle, was pushed out as chief of staff after little more than a year.
Among other top operatives mentioned for possible departure are senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer and deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. Both have been at Obama’s side since the 2008 campaign. They have played key roles in White House “messaging,” increasingly seen as a weakness for his presidency.
One former administration official said Pfeiffer planned to leave sometime after the president’s State of the Union address early next year.
Also on the list are White House counselor John Podesta and communications director Jennifer Palmieri, former members of Bill Clinton’s administration who might be poached for Hillary Clinton’s campaign if she decides to run for president in 2016.
Speculation aside, current and former aides see little reason to expect an overhaul like the one by George W. Bush after his Republican party’s thumping in the 2006 midterms. Just hours after the results were in, Bush dismissed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over the handling of the Iraq war.
SLOW-ROLLING EXODUS BY ATTRITION?
What some people close to Obama now expect is a slow-rolling exodus, mostly by attrition, that could stretch out for months but avoids explicitly casting blame for policy troubles on anyone who heads for exits.
A more immediate barometer of Obama’s interest in an infusion of new thinking may be his choice of a successor to Attorney General Eric Holder. An outsider, Loretta Lynch, the head federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, is emerging as a leading candidate, according to people familiar with the matter.
A more far-reaching question is whether Obama will try to reinvent himself. Bill Clinton responded to midterm losses in 1994 not only by shaking up his team but by becoming a master of “triangulation,” embracing legislative compromises that often split the difference between traditional Democratic and Republican ideologies. In his second term, he led a war in Kosovo and deepened China trade ties.
But unlike Clinton, who relished the schmoozing part of politics, the more aloof, professorial Obama has shown little interest in personal outreach to lawmakers, even his own party.
Obama’s former defense secretary, Leon Panetta, in a newly published book, criticized the president’s “frustrating reticence to engage his opponents.”
The received wisdom in Washington is that the midterm results will only ratchet up pressure on Obama to change his ways in order to push his agenda.
But Tommy Vietor, a former National Security Council spokesman who served as a longtime Obama aide, said he did not see the president turning to a style of “backrooms and back-slapping politicians cutting deals over a glass of bourbon.”
He said that while Obama would look for ways to work with Republicans, he would remain wary of those who have routinely blocked him because “they just don’t want to give him a win.”
Dennis Ross, Obama’s former top Middle East adviser, sees it differently. He said the president would have little choice but to engage lawmakers if his administration negotiates a legacy-shaping nuclear deal with Iran and needs congressional approval to remove sanctions.
“He will need to invest some time with them,” Ross said.
Obama might also find common ground on a trans-Pacific trade deal and funding to combat Islamic State if Republicans want to show they can get things done in Congress. But on immigration and climate change, he is expected to resort to executive action.
Harman, now head of the Wilson Center in Washington, also called on Obama and his White House to reach out to members of the new Congress. “Am I confident they will? No,” she said. “But Nov. 5 is a very a very good time to reset a number of things.”