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Duberstein Watch

The Washington establishment has advice for President Obama.

1:51 PM, Nov 16, 2010 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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It's inevitable: Whenever a president runs into trouble, the Washington establishment counsels him to hire one of their own. In 2005, as the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, the Fitzgerald probe, and a worsening situation in Iraq harmed the Bush presidency, Republican fixers David Gergen and Ken Duberstein urged the president to fire Karl Rove, apologize for his mistakes, and move toward the Democrats. (Read Fred Barnes's coverage at the time here.) Replacing Rove with someone like Gergen, it was said, would signal a new willingness to compromise in the Bush White House. Bush didn't listen, of course. He ignored the establishment's advice in 2005 and 2006 and adopted the surge strategy in Iraq instead.

Now President Obama is in trouble, thanks to a sluggish economy and unpopular policies. The establishment's advice? Hire Ken Duberstein! Some things never change. Here's WSJ columnist Gerald Seib:

Mr. Duberstein has traversed the partisan and ideological landscape in a long Washington career. He started as an aide to liberal Republican Sen. Jacob Javits, moved into the centrist administration of Gerald Ford, and finally into the White House of Mr. Reagan, a conservative Republican.

His White House experience most relevant to today's situation came not as chief of staff in the final stage of the Reagan presidency, but in his role as the man in charge of relations with the Democratic-controlled House at the outset of the Reagan years. The only way for a Republican president to accomplish anything then was to win support—lots of it—from across the aisle. So Mr. Duberstein learned to assiduously court Democrats, one by one.

The Reagan White House essentially created the so-called Boll Weevils, a group of about 60 House Democrats willing to work and occasionally vote with the Republican president. The payoff came when the first Reagan budget passed the House with 63 Democratic votes.

Since leaving the White House, Mr. Duberstein has built bonds with that other constituency where the Obama White House needs some help, the business community. He runs a consulting firm bearing his name that advises a select group of American corporations—as well as some nongovernment organizations—on how to solve problems and get things done in Washington.

One of his key corporate roles, as it happens, is as lead director for Boeing Co., a firm with a few things to contribute to the Obama goal of ramping up American exports.

This would be funny if it weren't so sad. The president has just suffered a historic shellacking because of the widespread perception that Washington is out of touch and the president's policies are hurting the country. So what does the establishment counsel the president to do? Hire someone who hasn't been in government in two decades, and who in the meantime has used his connections to make a lucrative living as an influence peddler. Can you see Duberstein negotiating with, or even relating to, Paul Ryan or Rand Paul? I can't.

Even so, I agree with Seib that one reason the president has suffered is that his inner circle is closed and plays to Obama's ego. So let me make an alternative suggestion: the president might try firing Valerie Jarrett and replacing her not with Ken Duberstein but with William Galston, the Brookings scholar who, more than any other Democrat, has correctly analyzed the current political dynamic. Having Galston in the White House would help Obama move to the center and focus on the key issue of deficit reduction. The president wouldn't regret it.

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