The alternatives to a second Obama term are so frightening that one hesitates to find fault with him unduly, but this is becoming harder and harder. It became quite clear after the passage of the health care plan that Barack Obama's career as a transformational President was over and that he had no wish to resume it. I began suggesting around that time that he seemed at least as likely to become the Herbert Hoover of our present crisis as our FDR. He is clearly, I regret to say, a creature of the Establishment in a way that Roosevelt and even Kennedy were not. Academia treated him very well in his youth, and evidently earned his confidence. He has relied on conventional economic thinkers with results that are likely to be disastrous. But something else has emerged over the past few years, something which I am not nearly close enough to the situation fully to understand, but which emerges clearly from a growing body of data. In the midst of an economic crisis and an increasingly chaotic world, Barack Obama is not, it would seem, a very rewarding President to work for.
The contrast with other Presidents, and particularly with FDR, is noteworthy. Judge Samuel Rosenman was Roosevelt's principal speech drafter for the whole of this thirteen years in office. His cabinet members showed extraordinary loyalty. Secretary of State Hull, never a Roosevelt intimate, served for 11 years; Treasury Secretary Morgenthau served for the last 11; Interior Secretary Ickes and Labor Secretary Frances Perkins served for the full twelve. Harry Hopkins and Henry Wallace were close collaborators in several different capacities for the whole FDR Presidency. So did Admiral William Leahy. There were more changes within the White House, but staffers Steve Early and Pa Watson were also in attendance for a very long time. There were many reasons for this. Roosevelt spent time with all these men and women and encouraged them to compete for his favor; but more importantly, they knew they were part of a great crusade to remake America, and, then, the world. The private sector clearly offered no opportunities of comparable interest. Roosevelt's Administration included very few members of the GI (or "greatest") generation, as far as I can see, but it inspired many of them to behave similarly under Kennedy and Johnson. McNamara and Rusk stayed at their posts for seven and eight years; so did Orville Freeman at Agriculture and Stewart Udall at Interior. There were very few changes in either man's White House staff.
Barack Obama has now been President for two and a half years. He has already had two Chiefs of Staff; two press secretaries; and two National Security Advisers. In the midst of the worst long-term economic crisis in eighty years, one chairman of his Economic Council (Larry Summers) and two heads of the Council of Economic Advisers (Christina Romer and Austen Goolsbee) have left their posts. Having already changed National Security Advisers, he has now changed both the head of the CIA and the Secretary of Defense, losing Robert Gates, whose appointment was nearly the only bipartisan gesture that he managed to make work. And now rumors have surfaced that Hillary Clinton may follow in the footsteps of Robert McNamara and Paul Wolfowitz and go to the World Bank.
What this means, among other things, is that with the possible exception of Treasury Secretary Geithner (who is emerging as a major policy and public relations liability), no one has been allowed to emerge as a political force and a popular figure in his own right. Roosevelt in particular did not make that mistake. Ickes, Hopkins, Wallace, and, during the war, Secretary of War Stimson were massive public presences in their own right, inspirations to New Deal voters and lightning rods for opposition. Rumsfeld and Cheney played similar roles under Bush II. Hillary Clinton certainly might have played a similar role, but the Administration's foreign policy has been so lacking in innovation or initiative that she really has not had a chance to.
Why has all this happened, or not happened? To begin with, the President has made it clear that he would rather preside over the Eisenhower Administration than the Roosevelt one. One major reform--Health Care--and one anti-depression initiative, the stimulus, was enough for him--even though it hasn't worked. Roosevelt gave his subordinates responsibility and new worlds to conquer; Obama is fighting a largely unsuccessful battle simply to keep a federal government in place at all. Yet that cannot be the whole story. The President has always seemed to be a man of intelligence and charm, and he is legendary for never losing his temper; but sadly, he seems to lack Roosevelt's and Kennedy's knack for inspiring loyalty. Interestingly enough, while most of the men and women I mentioned above entered the national government for the first time under FDR, Obama has recruited an astonishing number of veterans of the Clinton Administration. While no adviser has betrayed, they have found it all to easy to end their relationship. There must be some reason for this, and eventually we will find out what it is.
Our crisis may be about to become much worse. Natural economic forces are not coming to our assistance, and the Republicans, it seems, may actually want to bring about a government default in the belief that any ensuing chaos will rebound to their benefit. The President has about six months to get on top of events. It is not clear that he has the necessary men and women around him to help him do so.
p.s. I of course had no idea when I did this post that the President, just a few days later, would tell the American people that he sometimes feels as if one term in office would be enough One reason people enjoyed working with FDR and JFK so much was that they couldn't wait to get to work every day. In any organization, the man or woman at the top sets the tone.