Obama’s puzzling personnel choices

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Politics,Beltway Confidential,Michael Barone

Chicago Mayor and former Obama Chief of Staff Emanuel has resigned his position as honorary co-chairman of the president’s reelection campaign to lead the fundraising effort for the pro-Obama superPAC Priorities USA. Technically, this was not Barack Obama’s choice, since the superPAC is supposed to be independent of the reelection campaign, but who can doubt that he either approved or ordered it? These things don’t happen by accident or without explicit or implicit permission.


Emanuel’s previous association with the campaign, which is headquartered in Chicago a few blocks from his City Hall office, raises questions about the legality of the switch. The two organizations are supposed to be independent of each other, with no contact, but Emanuel obviously had knowledge of what the Obama campaign wanted and he cannot help carry that knowledge with him to his work on the superPAC. And who doubts that this extremely able and aggressive and politically adept individual will contribute to the decisions the superPAC makes—what ads to run, where, etc.?


I’ll lead the campaign finance lawyers sort that out. I want to focus on what I consider Team Obama’s poor judgment on personnel. Why is Emanuel needed at the superPAC? Because big Democratic contributors have no confidence in the judgment of its head Bill Burton. Burton was deputy press secretary in the early Obama White House but was passed over for the top press job when Robert Gibbs left in favor of Time magazine writer Jay Carney. The big contributors, many of whom are pretty smart politically themselves, must be thinking: why should I entrust my money to someone who was passed over? In contrast, big Republican contributors have confidence in the judgment of Karl Rove, leader of the biggest pro-Romney superPAC. After all he did superintend two winning presidential campaigns.


Obama’s personnel choices are particularly dicey when you look at press spokesmen. Gibbs has an affable personality, but frequently found himself taking untenable positions. Carney, whom I’ve known for 20 years, is smart and carefully spoken. But he also allows himself to get in positions where he must be rigid in ways that do not serve Obama well. Prime example: his refusal to declare that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. This led to the party platform’s omission of a 2008 platform statement that it is, which had to be embarrassingly reversed on Wednesday afternoon. Then came evidence of another bad personnel choice, that of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The platform amendment technically required a two-third vote. Villaraigosa called for the voice vote and it seemed to be evenly divided. He called for a second voice vote; same result. He called for a third voice vote; the nos seemed a bit louder, but Villaraigosa declared that the ayes had it, which was followed by booing. Some of the boos may have come from delegates objecting to the procedure, but it looked like the delegates were anti-Israel and anti-God (the amendment also reinserted mention of God). Of course what Villaraigosa should have done was declare it passed on the first voice vote and then bring down the gavel. That’s what Nancy Pelosi or Steny Hoyer would have done. The Obama people needed to give Villaraigosa gavel lessons. And where were the Team Obama folks in the delegations, ginning up the aye votes? Taking a break, it seems. So why was Villaraigosa picked as chairman rather than Pelosi (the usual choice at party conventions is the party’s leader in the House)? Because Team Obama wanted a Hispanic up there.


As to other press spokesmen, Stephanie Cutter seems to me unnecessarily nasty and prone to double down on misstatements that cannot be defended. Mainstream media reporters that I’ve talked to have the same impression; she’s failing to win over a mostly sympathetic constituency. And then there’s Democratic National Chairman Debbie Wasserman Shultz, clearly hand picked by Obama. As a woman and a Jew she can appeal to the party’s feminist and Jewish constituencies. But like Cutter she has a tendency to double down on misstatements that cannot be defended. Consider her exchanges with my Examiner colleague Philip Klein, documented here, here and here. Evidently Team Obama likes Wasserman Shultz because she’s feisty and aggressive. But when you’ve got a Democratic National Chairman whom CNN reporters characterize as living in an “alternative universe,” you’ve got a liability, not an asset.


In contrast, Clinton administration press spokesmen—George Stephanopoulos, Dee Dee Meyers, Mike McCurry, Joe Lockhart—were hugely more pleasant as individuals than most of the Obama spokesmen and much less inclined to make indefensible statements and to double down on inaccuracies. Personnel choices tell you something about the man or woman in charge.

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Michael Barone

Senior Political Analyst
The Washington Examiner