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Obama's insular White House worries his allies

December 25, 2010 - Washington

US President Barack Obama's executive style relies heavily on a cordon of advisors who were with him at earlier points in his career, but now there are concerns in certain quarters that with senior advisors resigning, Obama is replacing them with trusted confidants who are closer to him than the people they replaced.

Take the case of former National Security Advisor James Jones. Jones had the responsibility of weeding out what the president didn't need to see, but when he found two national security aides with close ties to the president, Thomas Donilon and Denis McDonough, hurrying into the Oval Office to show him the latest piece of hot intelligence rather too frequently and without consulting him, he resigned.

Jones reportedly felt that he was being left out of the loop and that Obama was being given raw reports before their meaning and import were clear.

Obama never quite clicked with Jones - and the absence of a personal connection with the commander in chief turned out to be a handicap.

Obama quickly replaced Jones with Donilon, a member of his 2008 transition team and a figure with a long history in Democratic politics. McDonough, a top foreign policy aide on Obama's campaign team, was made Donilon's No. 2.

Gone is Christina Romer, a UC Berkeley professor who chaired his Council of Economic Advisors. In is place came Austan Goolsbee, a longtime Obama campaign aide who is confident enough about his relationship with the president that at a celebrity comic night last year he joked: "Look, I'm not saying that in 1961 we were, like, separated at birth - in a village in Kenya - what I'm saying is that we're friends."

Out is Rahm Emanuel, the ambitious chief of staff now running for mayor of Chicago; in is Pete Rouse, who was chief of staff in Obama's Senate office and who helped chart Obama's rise from freshman senator to president.

Atop the pyramid is a quartet of longtime friends and campaign aides: senior advisors Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, and Rouse.

Though, according to the Los Angeles Times, Obama is likely to reshuffle staff next year and assign some people to different roles, none of the big four is expected to leave his orbit.

Axelrod will leave the White House to begin planning for the reelection campaign, but his replacement is expected to be David Plouffe, who ran the 2008 Obama campaign.

For the foreseeable future Obama will be surrounded by a phalanx of aides utterly devoted to his political interests.

That probably will focus the decision-making. But Democratic allies and even some White House officials are hoping he doesn't lean too far in this direction, creating an insular presidency.

With Republicans in charge in the House next year, the Democrats contend, Obama needs new faces who might be better suited to negotiate with a resurgent GOP and come up with a fresh alternative to the now-dated 2008 campaign message of "hope and change."

Some names being tossed around: former Secretary of State Colin Powell; outgoing Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell; and Erskine Bowles, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and co-chairman of Obama's deficit reduction panel.

"He's dealing with a new reality. He desperately needs new people inside and outside of government to advise him and help frame a strategy to deal with an environment where Republicans have a new majority," Douglas Schoen, a pollster who advised Clinton, said in an interview.

The White House "is a very isolating place," said former Clinton aide Marcia Hale, "unless you really try to break out."

"The thing that's not there now that has been there in the past is base-touching and outreach contact," said Peter Peyser, a Democratic lobbyist whose clients include cities and states. "What's lacking is a taking of the pulse of people outside the circle."

This is a president who doesn't like surprises. He prefers familiar faces and rituals. He plays golf with a stable foursome that often includes Marvin Nicholson, his trip director and a former caddy; takes vacations with a close circle of friends from Chicago; stays in the same hotels on the road (in Des Moines, a modest Hampton Inn) as he did during his campaign.


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