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Obama Administration: Too Many Cooks?

9:00 AM, Dec 18, 2008 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Very smart column this morning by Karl Rove in the Wall Street Journal. By "smart," of course, I mean that I share his views.

Rove writes that while Barack Obama is receiving good grades for his appointments thus far -- Cabinet and top staff -- the president-elect may be creating problems for himself. "Organizing and operating the White House will be a much bigger challenge than he can possibly yet understand," Rove writes.

He cites the example of incoming National Security Adviser, General James Jones. There has

historically been tension over the roles of the national security adviser and secretary of state. How that tension is resolved depends largely on the able National Security Adviser-designate, James Jones.

Mr. Jones has been Marine Corps commandant and NATO supreme allied commander, posts whose occupants are treated as demigods. How easily will he fit into a staff role? Will Mr. Jones see his responsibility as ensuring the president receives a broad range of options, or will he put a higher priority on advocating his own substantive views? Could Mr. Jones's personal relationship with so many top brass undermine Secretary Robert Gates's control of the Pentagon during what could be Mr. Gates's last year at Defense?

Jones also worked extensively on the Middle East peace process. Will he subordinate his views to Hillary Clinton's? Susan Rice, who wanted to be Secretary of State or National Security Adviser but is instead Obama's UN Ambassador, has already made clear that she intends to wield lots of power from New York and has sought to expand her staff.

Other problems may arise from what seem to be "sweeteners" that enticed his powerful top aides to take jobs that some might have not otherwise accepted. There were news reports that Tom Daschle did not want to serve only as Secretary of Health and Human Services. So Obama named him head of the White House office of Health Care Reform. Bill Richardson wanted to be Secretary of State; Commerce Secretary was something of a consolation prize. So Obama made him something akin to Commerce-Secretary-Plus. He introduced Richardson, a former UN Ambassador, as a "leading economic diplomat" for the United States and promised that Richardson, a former Energy Secretary, will help end "our dependence on foreign oil."

As Rove points out, Obama has added a "climate czar" to the already-complicated environmental policymaking apparatus in the executive branch. There is the EPA, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the Interior Department, the Energy Department, etc. A lot of egos to manage.

In theory, of course, it's great to get advice from as many different sources as possible. And in theory it's great to give even White House interns walk-in privileges with the president. But reality makes those things problematic.

When Gerald Ford came to the White House, one of his priorities was to run a White House that gave as many people as possible access to the president. Following the top-down organization of the Nixon White House, Ford was determined to bring change to White House operations -- an operation that would be more collegial and less hierarchical. Ford wanted to have a White House that was transparent and open and responsive to the press. So he told his transition team -- which included incoming chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld and Rumsfeld's replacement, Dick Cheney -- that he wanted to operate on a spokes-of-the-wheel model, in which Ford would be the hub and some twelve advisers would be the spokes. How did it work? When Cheney left the White House after Ford lost in 1976, his staff gave him a mangled bicycle tire with nearly all of the spokes snapped in two.

So I would imagine many White House veterans will chuckle when they learn that Obama's top strategist, David Axelrod, told Mark Leibovich of the New York Times that the Obama White House will be "very collegial" and "not excessively hierarchical."

Good luck with that.