The headline on this Bloomberg piece catches a certain, robust and current, strain of thought in Washington.
Obama Needs to Fire Some People
The writer, Ezra Klein, would never be mistaken for a red meat critic of either the president or the Affordable Care Act, so it is noteworthy when he elaborates that
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.
But as Ross K. Baker at USA Today writes:
Presidents are instinctively reluctant to wield [the] ax.
Baker and others have theorized that this is because presidents just want to be loved and firing someone isn’t a very lovable thing to do. But one suspects that as the office has become increasingly magisterial, those occupying it have become more and more reluctant to get their hands dirty with the actual management of anything. Better, as President Obama plainly believes, to give speeches and conduct business as though the office occupies an inspirational sphere where those who are cut do not bleed. Not visibly, at any rate. Still, the thought must have occurred to President Obama (and some of his predecessors), Won’t someone rid me of this meddlesome Secretary of Health and Human Services?
And when nobody steps up, then you just soldier on. And speaking of soldiers, this occupation is the exception to the Washington rule about firings. During the Obama years, two of the nations most conspicuous soldiers understood the signals and fired themselves. As Baker writes:
Both generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus knew they were doomed and tendered their resignations.
But the military is a different culture, an outlier in the world of Washington and politics, to include in its approach to losing football coaches. As reported on ESPN, West Point has:
… fired Rich Ellerson after five seasons, the school confirmed Sunday. Ellerson was 20-41 at Army, including 0-5 against Navy.
Making his record comparable to that of Kathleen Sebeilus, head coach of HHS. She, however, still has her job.
As does another football coach, Mike Shanahan of the Redskins who, in the opinion of Tony Kornheiser and others, is doing everything he can to provoke team owner Daniel Snyder into firing him and paying him a contracted $7 million. In yesterday’s loss the Atlanta Falcons, a team almost as hapless as the Redskins, Shanahan benched Robert Griffin III, who had been hailed as the quarterback of the future, destined to lead the Redskins to the promised land. “RG3,” as he is known, is a special favorite of the owner, so the benching could have been viewed as a thumb in his eye and enough to trigger a firing, as if a season of only 3 wins, against 10 loses, going into Atlanta were not sufficient cause.
The replacement quarterback played well enough that the Redskins scored a late touchdown that would, with the addition of the point-after, have tied the game and pushed it into overtime. Shanahan decided to go for two. The end was as fated as Becket’s.
Today, football scholars are engaged in a debate over whether, or not, it was a good decision to go for two. What is indisputable is that it was a controversial one. And if the owner needed another item on a bill of particulars against Shanahan, he could add that one to it. But the owner, who has never been timid about firing coaches (or throwing money around) seems reluctant. And one suspects that this is a Washington thing. That a firing would somehow tarnish the one doing the firing. Reveal him to be less than utterly in change and competent. Also as weak, in giving into the demands of the mob. (Voters, fans, columnists, sportswriters … the usual riff raff.)
It all recalls that odd moment in the last presidential campaign when Mitt Romney said, with his usual maleloquence, that he “liked to fire people.” He got his bones jumped for that statement by a media that is tuned precisely to the culture of Washington where that sort of thing is neither done nor, especially, said.
After all, it might give some the wrong idea.