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POLITICS: PennAve

Obama sticks with Kathleen Sebelius and Marilyn Tavenner

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Politics,White House,Barack Obama,Health Care,PennAve,Susan Crabtree,Kathleen Sebelius,CMS,HHS

President Obama has given no sign he is ready to fire aides responsible for the botched healthcare.gov website and instead is expanding his White House team to go on the offensive.

Critics have called for the dismissal of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, but the president has publicly shown full confidence in his health chief. When Obama declared the website fixed and launched an Obamacare enrollment drive, Sebelius was sitting in the front row.

One reason Obama may be keeping Sebelius on the job is political necessity. Any replacement would face a lengthy confirmation fight, allowing Republicans to re-litigate the health law.

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services chief information officer Tony Trenkle retired in November, but officials said his departure had been in the works.

The “tech surge” to fix the website brought in new faces, but key healthcare.gov players, including CMS administrator Marilyn Tavenner and CMS project manager Henry Chao, remain in their posts.

Political analysts say there’s a reason for that: Letting heads roll during a crisis just isn’t Obama’s style.

“Usually when there is a monstrous screw-up, presidents make the symbolic gesture of firing someone — even if it’s not a critical gesture,” said Richard Benedetto, a former White House correspondent for USA Today who teaches journalism at American University.

“But Obama is reluctant to do it. He sees it as political weakness. ... He thinks by firing people it shows that he chose the wrong person in the first place, so he muddles through,” Benedetto said.

Few high-profile Obama officials have resigned under a cloud.

Green jobs adviser Van Jones left very early in the first term, after conservatives questioned his views on 9/11. Obama also accepted resignations from Gen. Stanley McChrystal after he mocked administration officials, acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller amid the agency’s targeting scandal, and CIA Director David Petraeus after an extramarital affair.

During the Solyndra controversy, though, Obama resisted calls to replace Steven Chu as energy secretary, and he supported then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice when she came under criticism for her handling of the Benghazi consulate attack.

Attorney General Eric Holder’s grasp on the Justice Department was never at risk even after Republicans hammered him over the Fast and Furious gun-running scandal and again last summer when it was revealed that the FBI seized reporters’ private emails.

In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Obama said the problem-plagued first two months of Obamacare enrollment had more to do with a bloated bureaucracy than his personal management style or “particular issues around White House organization.”

Obama chalked up Obamacare’s troubles to outdated federal policies on contracting and IT purchases, not to failures by his own team.

“We have these big agencies, some of which are outdated, some of which are not designed properly,” he said.

Far from taking the fall for Obamacare’s woes, Sebelius is pushing ahead with a review she says will prevent similar mistakes in the future.

The secretary directed her department's inspector general to probe the “structural and managerial policies” that led to the flawed rollout.

Critics say a lengthy internal investigation will produce volumes of paperwork and new directives, but do little to fix blame on the administration officials responsible for the health reform missteps.

Instead of pushing people out the door, Obama is responding to detractors and sinking poll numbers by bringing in fresh advisers to better deliver the White House message.

John Podesta and Phil Schiliro, veteran political operatives, will work to repair the president’s badly damaged personal credibility.

A top priority for the pair will be trying to calm nervous Democrats worried about losing their seats and control of the Senate come November. Podesta and Schiliro have their work cut out for them.

Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from the red state of West Virginia, said he thinks bringing in the two political operatives is a smart move, but he’s still pushing several proposals that would alter or delay key parts of the health care law.

“We’ve got to continue to work to improve it,” he told the Washington Examiner. “I’d like to give every effort I can to fix it.”

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