White House Staff Upheaval Actually Quite Normal, Say Former Bush, Clinton Officials

06/13/2014 07:40 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2014
ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- For President Barack Obama, 2014 has been a year of goodbyes at the White House.

Two weeks ago, he accepted the resignation of his Veterans Affairs secretary, Eric Shinseki, amid reports of misconduct at the agency. Hours later, he stood at the same podium and said his press secretary, Jay Carney, was stepping down.

The loss of those key players -- who both served under Obama’s presidency since its beginning -- comes after other recent transitions in the administration's highest ranks. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius resigned in April, following the bumpy rollout of Obamacare, and Kathryn Ruemmler, one of the longest-serving members of Obama’s legal counsel, left in May.

To the casual observer, and perhaps to the delight of Obama’s critics, the departures may suggest a White House engulfed in chaos. The administration has certainly been on the defensive lately, scrambling to remedy problems in the VA system, fighting to keep a focus on successes of the president’s health care law, and appeasing lawmakers furious over a secret swap of a U.S. prisoner of war for five Taliban captives.

But previous West Wing denizens see things differently: Shinseki may have been a casualty of scandal, but the spike in resignations makes sense for a White House team heading into its final stretch.

"There is a burnout phase, and very few that remain an entire two terms," said Anita McBride, former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush and special assistant for White House Management under President George W. Bush. "Either you have fulfilled what you can contribute to the overall agenda, you're just pure and simple tired, or financially you can't afford to do it anymore. Or, the president can no longer be confident that you are the best person for the job."

McBride, also director of White House Personnel under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, said what the president needs at this stage is a clear sense of the people prepared to stick around to the bitter end.

"You really don't want to make a lot of changes in the final year, if you can help it," McBride said.

Ari Fleischer, President George W. Bush’s press secretary from January 2001 to July 2003, said Obama's latest staff exodus doesn’t mean the White House is in disarray. On the contrary, he said, it means people are making wise decisions, both personally and professionally.

"The White House is not Hotel California," Fleischer said. "You are allowed to leave it and it's healthy and good for the president if the staff does turn over."

The goal isn’t to stick around forever because that leaves people "too battle-hardened," Fleischer said. Instead, he compared White House staff turnover with a relay race, where the baton is passed, but never dropped. The key to maintaining a successful White House shop is for one person to slow down as another speeds up and smoothly takes over. Not that everyone does that.

"If anything, people in the Bush administration probably stayed too long and lost a little bit of their sharpness without even realizing it," Fleischer said.

In the case of Obama’s latest departures, some had already stayed longer than they had planned. Ruemmler had envisioned leaving at the end of 2013, but stuck around a bit longer at the president’s request. Carney took over as press secretary in February 2011 and thought maybe he’d keep the job for two years, but the president asked him to stay on longer. In the end, Carney said it wasn’t burnout that fueled his decision to leave. It was his kids.

"To live the cliche, if I were single or married but with no kids, I don‘t think there’s any question that I would go to the end," Carney said. "I love the job and there’s never going to be another experience that I’m likely to have that’s remotely similar. … But I think that as much as I tried to carve out time for my kids, there’s still, you still miss a lot."

The process of leaving a top White House job isn’t as simple as giving two weeks’ notice. It involves telling the president you won’t be working for him or her anymore. The White House chief of staff communicates the changes to senior staff and plots target dates for the transition and a successor. Another team manages the public perception and puts together talking points to help shape the transition. All of this is under wraps, meanwhile, with care taken to avoid a media frenzy.

In Carney’s case, he said his team was "mindful" of the fact that they planned to announce his resignation as controversy was unfolding over a report detailing widespread treatment delays in the VA and calls for Shinseki’s resignation. That report dropped on a Wednesday. The media was abuzz on Thursday, and by Friday morning, Shinseki had stepped down. The White House decided that afternoon was the best window to slip in Carney’s announcement.

"Friday, after the events of the morning, made sense," Carney said. "If you wait for the perfect time to do almost anything here, you’re going to be waiting forever."

Karen Finney, who was deputy director of presidential scheduling for President Bill Clinton and press secretary for then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, said she's not surprised to see so many high-level people leaving the White House now, since people are bound to hit their “natural breaking points” at this stage of a presidency.

And for many, that breaking point traces back to what people are sacrificing in their personal lives, Finney said.

"People with children have it really rough," Finney said. "I remember colleagues in the Clinton administration missing their kids' first baseball games or different things like that. Yes, you're at the White House doing this incredible work. But there is a sense that you're missing some of those moments that aren't going to happen again."

As for those essentially forced out of the White House, the media frenzy is more difficult to manage. McBride, currently the executive-in-residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University, likened the circumstances around Shinseki’s ouster to the departure of John H. Sununu, who served as President George H.W. Bush's chief of staff until 1991. Faced with myriad problems on the domestic policy front, the president urged Sununu to resign as it became clear he may burden Bush's reelection campaign.

"That was very hard for the president. It fell to the president's son, George W., to help make that decision, help move that forward," McBride said. "It changed the dynamics in the White House immediately because there were relentless stories like we saw with Shinseki. It was not going to stop."

Although Sununu was not the face of a scandal like Shinseki came to be, McBride said relentless political attacks and bad press made him a distraction for the president.

"Once that train was out of the station, there was nothing you could do," McBride said. "The person could come back as the reincarnate Lord. It was not going to change."

President George W. Bush faced a similar struggle in 2006, when he was forced to replace Donald Rumsfeld, his defense secretary who led the country into wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bush's decision came as his administration faced intense pressure over its handling of the Iraq war in particular, which helped propel Democrats back into the House majority that year.

"The president of the United States, as a commander-in-chief, has to think about a lot of things, not just the media and public perception," McBride said. "You're in the middle of two wars and you're changing out your secretary of defense. The timing is never good, but is it particularly worse in one moment over another? The fact is these decisions are not made lightly and they certainly take into context what will be the media response, but it can't be the only factor."

Shinseki's departure coincides with an election year, and vulnerable Democrats up for reelection arguably forced Obama's hand by issuing calls for the VA secretary's resignation. But Fleischer said the decision to let Shinseki go would have been the same regardless of whether an election was around the corner.

"I don't think it has anything to do with an election year as much as it does the time-honored Washington tradition that people demand the scalp -- and the more senior, the better -- when something goes wrong," Fleischer said. "It doesn't necessarily solve the problem, but it gets it through the day, unless you're the scalp."

The dissent from Democrats did play some role, Fleischer added, given that a big part of the Obama playbook has been to blame Republicans for politicizing controversies.

"Well, that doesn't hold up when the people criticizing you are Democrats." Fleischer said. "And that's what made the Shinseki issue non-survivable."

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