It is common for White House staff to depart an administration after its first two years and for a new set of actors to come aboard to serve the President. For the Obama administration, what is a normal presidential transition is a much-needed breath of fresh air for a staff that has been slow in recognizing the rising resentment of the electorate. More than changing a few faces, this White House needs the equivalent of an extreme home makeover. The announced departure of Lawrence Summers as the president’s director of the National Economic Council is one of many changes that need to take place.
President Obama has made some positive moves in his first two years in office and has acted responsibly in trying to dig the nation out of the economic hole the previous administration dug. Many of his initiatives helped avoid a catastrophic collapse of the nation’s economy and a Depression. Even the controversial economic stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), has had some positive benefits as many economists confirm. Unfortunately, much of what the President has accomplished has not resulted in any residual benefit politically as he has come under vicious, and often racist, attacks from the political opposition. One failure of his staff has been its inability to communicate President Obama’s successes to the public and frame his efforts in the larger context of restoring the nation’s economy over the long-term.
One key position that we believe must change hands is White House chief of staff. We understand why President Obama chose an ally from Illinois, former Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, as his chief of staff. Mr. Emmanuel, a Clinton White House veteran, understood the inner workings of Washington policy making and he had a reputation for being tough enough to get the job done. Yet, two years later Mr. Emmanuel has not delivered in a way that many thought he would in positioning President Obama. This White House has become too cautious and lacked the boldness many of the President’s supporters thought would be the hallmark of the “change” that was promised during the election. Now, with Mr. Emmanuel mentioned as a likely candidate for the Chicago mayoralty upon the retirement of Mayor Richard Daley, an opportunity exists for President Obama to appoint a new captain to guide his ship.
We are hopeful that after all the smoke has cleared we will see a White House that is more diverse, specifically the inclusion of more high-level Black appointees. In addition, we need this President to stop running from issues involving race and equity. For too long he has allowed “politics” to handcuff him from speaking honestly about race in this nation. It is time that he acknowledged that a universal program for economic recovery would not lift the fortunes of the millions of Black Americans who are on the brink of personal and economic disaster. He will come under attack for proposing a targeted jobs program but that is why rallying your supporters, your political base is paramount. Similarly, we need a real urban policy out of this White House and some idea what the President specifically proposes to do for the nation’s ailing cities. For too long observers have compared the Obama presidency to that of President Kennedy, but we believe the model he should emulate is Lyndon Johnson. A second term may be the goal, but he should pursue his aims with the tenacity of LBJ, who oversaw an unprecedented period of social change during his one term in office. The Vietnam War weighed down President Johnson’s domestic agenda, and that is a lesson this President also needs to heed as he struggles with the war in Afghanistan.
One of the most important changes that must take place in the White House is for this President to return to the source of his political ascension – youth. Young people who were such a big part of the Obama campaign are now becoming invisible in its governance. It is why you are beginning to see so many young people wave the banner of the Tea Party. They are looking for some sign that the nation’s leaders respect their voices and understand their concerns. President Obama needs to recommit to the nation’s young adults and any change in White House staff should include a specific appointment to focus on youth policy.