WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama has begun his second term by consolidating his personal control of the White House, Democrats in and outside the administration say, reflecting a shift from his less centralized first term.
The shift has become clear in the new style of management under Obama’s new chief of staff, Denis McDonough, who — unlike his predecessors — acts more as Obama’s enforcer than as a principal in his own right.
Once, McDonough’s predecessors, notably Rahm Emanuel, made strategic choices and served as the key liaisons to Congress. Now Obama sets the strategy and priorities and makes the calls to Capitol Hill himself; and the chief of staff’s role has been handed to a trusted ally who shares the president’s vision. Obama “is in complete control of the White House,” said Jonathan Prince, a Democratic political consultant who was a foreign policy aide in Obama’s first term. And the coming years will reveal whether the president’s command of the details and sense of himself as the smartest man in the room will produce a newly effective presidency — or a worrisome centralization.
“Denis is the most powerful chief of staff he’s had, because he is completely aligned with the president,” Prince said. “Obama doesn’t have to worry what Denis’ own agenda is, because Denis’ agenda is Obama’s agenda.”
The shift toward complete presidential control has been, in many ways, gradual. By the late first term, insiders say, Obama felt he had mastered the use of presidential power and had begun to dictate not just policy but also strategy more forcefully. But in one way, it has been abrupt: McDonough’s management style has been a marked departure from that of the mild-mannered Jack Lew, his immediate predecessor, and even more from the tenures of Emanuel and Bill Daley.
McDonough, who was known for his preoccupation with proper, formal process as a top national security aide, has imported from the National Security Council a ban on BlackBerrys and other smartphones at staff meetings, one current and one former official said. He has sometimes turned the morning meetings of top officials from debates into quicker, tougher forums, at times shutting down the musings of more freewheeling aides, like National Economic Council director Gene Sperling, with a terse “Yes or no?”
“Maybe it means you get a little less debate, but you also get a lot more pulling in the same direction, which is good,” Prince said of McDonough’s approach as a whole.
But the intense new mood of the McDonough regime — which has imposed long hours and high expectations even by the workaholic standards of the White House — is a pure projection of the boss. McDonough works so hard himself that few aides feel comfortable questioning early mornings and evening meetings, but some worry about the coming burnout.
And if McDonough’s role is narrower than his predecessors’ — well, Obama was famous during the 2008 campaign for his confidence in his own abilities.
“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” the candidate told Patrick Gaspard, who is now executive director of the Democratic National Committee, according to a New Yorker article on the campaign. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to think I’m a better political director than my political director.”
But Obama did not, when he took office just over four years ago, pretend to know more about running a White House than aides like Emanuel, who had been schooled in the battles of the Clinton administration. And while the president made the big calls, like pushing for a health-care overhaul, he did not always drive the administration’s strategy on getting his agenda achieved.
That has now, fully, changed.
“You’re talking about somebody who has a tremendous amount of confidence in his own capacities,” said a top Democrat. “It’s hard to imagine that four or five years into the thing now, he does not at this point feel like he has a better handle on it than any else in the building.”
“On most days it’s hard to tell him he’s wrong about anything — it’s hard to tell him five years in he knows the rhythm of the place and he knows what works best for him,” the Democrat said.
To the White House’s allies on the left, who have always believed (in spite of occasional evidence to the contrary) that the president is privately more liberal than his policies, the management shifts come with hints of a leftward policy turn. There are no more pet projects, and no more doubts. Obama is calling the plays, and McDonough is making sure they are run.
“He is quarterbacking in a way that maybe he didn’t or maybe he deferred to others in the first term,” said a labor leader. The leader and other activists pointed to the White House’s focus on immigration, guns, LGBT equality, and the minimum wage among other things as examples of where they see Obama taking charge.
“His personal favorite issues have really come out,” the leader said. “These are the things that are important to him.”
The second term is freeing for any president, liberating the Oval Office from the pressures of reelection polls. But a second term is also a race against time, and activists say the feverish pace with which the White House is taking up big, politically risky issues is an indication Obama is seeing the sand running out of the hourglass.
Obama’s allies on the left, though, have also seen a downside to the centralization of power. It’s a lot tougher for Obama’s base to get their complaints in the president’s orbit in the second term, activists said. Progressives have lost a lot of their go-to contacts in the administration as White House staff like Jon Carson have split for OFA or other outside organizations. So even as they welcome Obama’s more central role, they say they’re less plugged into what he’s thinking — and were furious last week, when the White House announced Obama’s budget plan will include cuts to entitlements that have once again activated progressive oppostion.
But none of the activists BuzzFeed talked to this week would admit to being upset about the management changes at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. One said it was “100% plus” to see Obama was directly dealing with Congress in his “charm offensives” and the like.
There’s a feeling that Obama feels freer now among progressives — and that can only be a good thing, they say.
“There are always pitfalls with everything,” the labor leader shrugged.
Obama has stumbled badly in the past when he’s ignored advice and plowed forward under his own assumptions. The Denver presidential debate, when Obama fell flat on his face, followed debate prep sessions in which Obama went his own way. In the following debates, Obama listened to his handlers. It was a similar situation during the 2010 budget fight, when a confident Obama reportedly told cautious aides he knew how to handle John Boehner and set off trying to make a deal that blew up in his face when Boehner couldn’t rally his House Republican caucus.
But Obama has steered the ship to great victories, too, as when he ignored the advice telling him not to pursue health-care reform or when some on his national security team said pursuing Osama bin Laden was too risky.
Obama is taking the risky path again, running things himself as Congress takes up the explosive issues of immigration reform, gun control, and returns to a budget fight. For the time being, the plan seems to be set: With his second term legacy at stake, it’s Obama in charge.