Obama administration focuses on following through
May 20, 2014 at 6:00 PM
Burned by the failed rollout of his health care law, President Barack Obama is seeking to build a team for the final years of his administration where management expertise may trump keen political or legislative skills.
Gone from the White House are nearly all the high-profile political gurus who ran Obama's two presidential campaigns. In their place are mostly lesser-known figures who have spent years in government, often in the type of policy implementation jobs that only make the news when something goes wrong.
The shift is in part an indication of the White House's low expectations for passing new legislation in a second term, even if Democrats manage to keep control of the Senate in the midterm elections. It also shows recognition by the White House that a repeat of the management failures and policy implementation problems that plagued the health care rollout could have dire consequences for the president.
"There's no question that one of the lessons of health care is the need for greater focus on implementation," said Dan Pfeiffer, Obama's senior adviser. "We want to structure the White House in a way that allows that best to happen."
That nuts-and-bolts approach may be a long way from the days when Obama campaigned as the champion of hope and change and urged Washington to do big things. But it comes as the White House faces another deepening political problem that raises questions about administration management, this time at the Veterans Affairs Department.
Republicans and Democrats alike have voiced anger over troubling allegations of preventable deaths and treatment delays at VA hospitals around the country. While Obama is so far standing by VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, officials say there is urgency in getting the matter under control.
As it seeks to shore up its response, the White House is turning to the same playbook it used during the health care enrollment debacle, when Obama dispatched longtime aide Jeffrey Zients to the Health and Human Services Department to oversee efforts to fix the woeful HealthCare.gov website.
Obama made a similar move last week, temporarily assigning deputy chief of staff Rob Nabors to the VA to lead an internal review of agency policies.
While Nabors and Zients are relatively unknown outside of Washington, both are seen as strong managers who also have the president's trust. While it's too early to know the results of Nabors' efforts at the VA, Zients' stint at HHS was largely deemed a success, with the website becoming operational ahead of key enrollment deadlines and sign-ups ultimately exceeding expectations.
Obama's advisers are also seeking to apply that rapid response mentality to daily operations at the White House.
That effort got underway earlier this year when Obama brought on John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, as a senior counselor. Podesta is charged specifically with overseeing the implementation of Obama's sweeping executive action plans for tackling climate change, an effort officials say rivals the complexity of the health law's implementation.
And on Friday, the White House promoted Kristie Canegallo, who has held multiple behind-the-scenes policy posts at the White House and Pentagon, to deputy chief of staff. She's been given a broad mandate that includes overseeing the continued implementation of the health care law, as well as management oversight of education policies and the drawdown of the Afghanistan war.
Dana Perino, who served as press secretary in George W. Bush's second term, welcomed the Obama team's effort to shore up its implementation, casting it as a challenge that every White House grapples with.
"The government is so big and there are so many things happening that you really have to have your eyes on every ball all at once," Perino said. "And you might drop one."
Of course, the legislative landscape in Washington is driving the White House's focus on implementation as much as anything else.
Faced with steady opposition from the Republican-led House, Obama has struggled to pass even routine legislation through Congress. Sweeping measures like an immigration overhaul are a long shot between now and the November elections. And with Washington already turning quickly to the 2016 elections, the prospects for immigration or other big legislation may be no better after the midterms.
Chris Lehane, a Democratic strategist who served in the Clinton White House, said Obama is now at the phase of his presidency where his focus will be by necessity "more about maintaining policies in place and managing programs rather than developing big ideas and creating new policies."
The White House insists that while its legislative pathways have indeed narrowed in a second term, Obama hasn't given up on Congress.
"The first team was financial crisis-oriented, legislative-oriented," said Pfeiffer, the only member of Obama's original political team still working in the White House. "This team is more executive action, implementation-oriented while still looking for ways to pass legislation."