The Obama Management Style

The piece speaks for itself, as what I choose to highlight so often does.  That is my style, to draw your attention to articles of significance and interest and construct from them a narrative, a story that encapsulates a truth about our current situation.  After all, who are you going to believe?  Me, or your own lying eyes?

I expect that some that read this will be as outraged as I am, others (equally outraged) will spring forth in defense of a President and his intimate staff who choose to immerse themselves in a West Wing bubble no less insular and irrelevant than the Imperial Court of the Forbidden City.

I have rightly called Politico Tiger Beat on the Potomac after the fashion of  Charles Pierce because of its attention to process and personality instead of politics or policy and there is no denying their conservative point of view in a Village that is essentially composed of aristocrats and courtiers, but unlike the stridently partisan depictions of this President and his Administration as do nothing layabouts who lounge all day in their sweats watching Hoopies this one has the air of authenticity even though composed by the same Rolodex stenography I frequently decry.

Maybe better than I can distill it to a few paragraphs, but the rot is so pervasive I can’t easily summarize it.  It is a tale of corruption and greed and disorganization and indifference that touches so many policies and actions that it is hard to condense.

I’ll introduce it as the author does with the tale of Steven Chu, but you should read the whole thing.  This is not an isolated incident.

Locked in the Cabinet

By GLENN THRUSH, Politico Magazine

November 2013

Steven Chu is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, a brilliant innovator whose research fills several all-but-incomprehensible paragraphs of a Wikipedia entry that spans his achievements in single-molecule physics, the slowing of atoms through the use of lasers and the invention of something called an “optical tweezer.” President Barack Obama even credits Chu with solving the 2010 Gulf oil spill, claiming that Chu strolled into BP’s office and “essentially designed the cap that ultimately worked.” With rare exception, Chu is the smartest guy in the room, and that includes the Cabinet Room, which he occupied uneasily as secretary of energy from 2009 to the spring of 2013.

But the president’s aides didn’t quite see Chu that way. He might have been the only Obama administration official with a Nobel other than the president himself, but inside the West Wing of the White House Chu was considered a smart guy who said lots of stupid things, a genius with an appallingly low political IQ-“clueless,” as deputy chief of staff Jim Messina would tell colleagues at the time.

In April 2009, Chu joined Obama’s entourage for one of the administration’s first overseas trips, to Trinidad and Tobago for a Summit of the Americas focused on economic development. Chu was not scheduled to address the media, but reporters kept bugging Josh Earnest, a young staffer, who sheepishly approached his boss, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, with the ask. “No way,” Gibbs told him.

“Come on,” Earnest said. “The guy came all the way down here. Why don’t we just have him talk about all the stuff he’s doing?”

Gibbs reluctantly assented. Then Chu took the podium to tell the tiny island nation that it might soon, sorry to say, be underwater-which not only insulted the good people of Trinidad and Tobago but also raised the climate issue at a time when the White House wanted the economy, and the economy only, on the front burner. “I think the Caribbean countries face rising oceans, and they face increase in the severity of hurricanes,” Chu said. “This is something that is very, very scary to all of us. … The island states … some of them will disappear.”

Earnest slunk backstage. “OK, we’ll never do that again,” he said as Gibbs glared. A phone rang. It was White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel calling Messina to snarl, “If you don’t kill [Chu], I’m going to.”

As Air Force One headed back to Washington, Messina found Chu-who has “no recollection” of this exchange, a person close to him says-sitting at the long table in the plane’s conference room. “What did you say?” Messina demanded, according to a witness. “What were you thinking?” he yelled. “And how, exactly, was this fucking on message?”

The staffers who rule Obama’s West Wing often treat his Cabinet as a nuisance: At the top of the pecking order are the celebrity power players, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to be warily managed; at the bottom, what they see as a bunch of well-intentioned political naifs only a lip-slip away from derailing the president’s agenda. Chu might have been the first Obama Cabinet secretary to earn the disdain of White House aides, but he was hardly the last.

“We are completely marginalized … until the shit hits the fan,” says one former Cabinet deputy secretary, summing up the view of many officials I interviewed. “If your question is: Did the president rely a lot on his Cabinet as a group of advisers? No, he didn’t,” says former Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

“Going into D.C., I didn’t know the political side. I knew the science and technology side,” recalls Chu, who today professes thinly veiled disdain for the people who “hover around”-the political types who felt little compunction about condescending to a Nobel Prize winner. “It took me a while to realize that one’s own instincts and judgments are sometimes better than the people that have been on the scene for a while.”