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Obama Needs to Fire Some People

By Ezra Klein
December 11, 2013 3:28 PM EST
OBAMA SEBELIUS Klein
OBAMA SEBELIUS Klein

When the Barack Obama administration realized that its HealthCare.gov website was fundamentally broken rather than merely glitchy, aides called former management consultant Jeff Zients to fix it.

When the White House realized restive congressional Democrats posed a serious threat to the health-care law’s future, the president recalled Phil Schiliro, the White House’s first director of legislative affairs, to safeguard it.

When Obama realized maybe this whole second-term thing wasn’t going that well, he called in John Podesta, who had served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, to fill a vague, yearlong “counselor” role to help right it.

Obama clearly decided that the people nominally in charge of his signature legislative achievement weren’t up to their jobs. The rescue effort wasn’t led by Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of Health and Human Services, or Marilynn Tavenner, head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. The legislative outreach isn’t being managed by Rob Nabors, who previously served as the White House’s director of legislative affairs and is now a deputy chief of staff, or by Miguel Rodriguez, who currently serves as director of legislative affairs (and appears to be mostly unknown on Capitol Hill).

All of which raises a question: If these people aren’t up to the most important tasks of Obama’s second term, why haven’t they been fired and replaced by people who are?

Though the site is working vastly better today than it was two months ago, the debut of HealthCare.gov was a genuine disaster. Specifically, it was a management disaster. CMS’s information technology department botched its job as systems integrator for HealthCare.gov. CMS management botched the job of recognizing that CMS’s IT department was botching its job. The failures cascaded from there, with HHS botching its oversight of CMS, and the White House botching its management of HHS.

It wasn’t just the technical challenges of HealthCare.gov that the administration managed poorly. The White House was completely unprepared for the furor over canceled insurance plans; that’s a political problem that Sebelius, a former insurance regulator, should’ve seen coming.

The failures extend beyond the health-care rollout. Obama wanted to nominate Lawrence Summers as chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank -- or at least wanted the option to do so. But the legislative affairs team failed to muffle dissension among Democrats on the Senate Banking Committee (in fact, it seemed like they failed to even try). Similarly, Obama wanted congressional authorization to strike Syria. But he was on track to lose a vote until a bout of seemingly extemporaneous diplomacy by Secretary of State John Kerry provided an exit, via trapdoor.

Somewhere in this chain of colossal, consequential screwups, there are surely a few people who deserve to be fired. The White House tends to dismiss such criticism. Indeed, Obama aides pride themselves on rising above it, viewing it as politically motivated or, when proffered by administration allies, derived from a crude desire for retribution. There might, at times, be truth to that. But firing and replacing underperforming staff is also a key element of effective management.

Of late, President Obama has shown a worrying preference for ad hoc, patchwork solutions. The White House recognizes that its health-care law hasn’t been well executed. That’s why it has been throwing new staff at the problem. But the new arrangements are temporary.

“From a management perspective, keeping people in place and then layering more people over them does not solve your management problems,” said Elaine Kamarck, founder of the Brookings Institution’s Center for Effective Public Management. “It just makes things more confusing.”

Take Zients, the guy who appears to have pulled off the rescue of HealthCare.gov. He would seem to be an obvious choice to manage the project going forward, perhaps by taking over HHS or CMS. Instead, he’s expected to replace Gene Sperling in January as head of the National Economics Council. For now, the same people who botched the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act are -- in theory, at least -- continuing to run it.

One White House excuse for keeping people in place was the difficulty of the Senate confirmation process. With Republicans filibustering most confirmations, a 60-vote supermajority was required to fill politically sensitive jobs. Under those rules, firing someone didn’t mean you could replace them with a better candidate. It meant risking that the position would go unfilled. Before Tavenner took over CMS, the agency hadn’t had a confirmed director in more than seven years.

In November, Senate Democrats eliminated the filibuster against executive-branch nominees. The White House now needs only 51 votes -- a number Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can easily deliver. President Obama now has a far freer hand with which to staff the executive branch. The question is whether he wants to use it.

It’s possible the White House is waiting until the health-care law is stabilized before seriously reassessing personnel. But at some point, Obama needs to recognize that temporary staffing and stopgap solutions are insufficient. His second term, so far, has been broken rather than simply glitchy. He needs to fix it.

(Ezra Klein is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

To contact the writer on this article: Ezra Klein in Washington at wonkbook@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net.

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