Key advisers poised to leave Obama

The Obama band is breaking up.

Now that a second term has been secured, President Obama is set to lose several key members of his famously close-knit inner circle. 

David Plouffe, a senior adviser in the White House, is expected to depart the halls of the West Wing in the coming months, sources say. 

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David Axelrod, the senior strategist on the Obama campaign and the political adviser closest to the president on a personal level, will be largely focused on the creation of a new politics institute at the University of Chicago.

And Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, who served as a White House deputy chief of staff for operations prior to leaving for Chicago, is unlikely to return to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. 

Messina, who spent long hours holed up in the campaign’s Chicago headquarters planning the operation’s next moves and maneuvers, quipped on Twitter last week that the only thing he and other aides want after a grueling campaign is “sleep and time w[ith] family.”

“I don’t think even he knows what his next step is,” one source close to Obama said of Messina. “I think he’s trying to figure it all out.”

The departure of the triumvirate will be all the more telling because of the intensity of the bond between them. 

Axelrod and Plouffe were the twin masterminds behind Obama’s improbable, dramatic 2008 campaign. 

Their closeness was such that, according to Plouffe’s subsequent book The Audacity to Win, other staffers compared hearing a rare argument between the duo to witnessing a fight between their parents.

Messina was not as high-profile four years ago as he was during this campaign, but, as Plouffe’s deputy, he was every bit as emotionally invested in the outcome.

Now that bond has been tempered by the fires of another draining but victorious presidential campaign.

But it will soon be loosened, and the political implications of that dynamic are made all the more intriguing by a marked trait of Obama’s: The president is widely perceived as slow to trust outsiders. 

He has made few changes to the coterie of aides who have been close to him since his initial run for the Oval Office, and experiments with broadening the circle have not always been successful: Witness Bill Daley’s less-than-stellar one-year term as White House chief of staff.

The changes will deprive the president of several of his most loyal and trusted political advisers in the West Wing, with the exception of senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s longtime friend and confidante. Jarrett said that she will be back in a second term if the president will have her, adding, “We all serve at the pleasure of the president.”

White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew might also depart after the beginning of the year if he’s not selected to replace Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner. 

Joe Lockhart, who served as White House press secretary to President Clinton, said turnover among a president’s senior staff is “both natural and positive” for the transition to a second term. 

“One important reason is burnout,” Lockhart said. “It’s hard to handle the pressure and workload at the White House for more than one term. Just having new advisers who are not worn down by the first term is a positive.”

That viewpoint is echoed across the political spectrum, including by Bill Lacy, the director of the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas, who served in the White House during President Reagan’s tenure.

“When you work in the White House, you just wear down every day,” he said. “It is an unbelievable grind. It is unlike anything I anticipated. I think any president is well-served by a smattering of people staying and a smattering of people who go.”

But Lacy also cautioned that it was difficult, if not impossible, to set down universal rules about whether new blood is a good or bad thing in a White House. 

“Context is critically important,” he said, noting that after Reagan won reelection in a landslide in 1984, “he was extraordinarily popular, and would have been well-served if the triumvirate of [James] Baker, [Ed] Meese and [Michael] Deaver had continued to run the White House. But they were tired of that. Then Don Regan took over as chief of staff, and it wasn’t the best combination of personalities.”

Still, Lacy asserted that Obama’s interests would be furthered most effectively by new arrivals in the White House. He suggested that those who had been less involved in the inherently partisan and ruthless business of campaigning would be better able to help the president forge new agreements across the aisle in Congress.

As a more general principle, Tony Fratto, who served as deputy press secretary in the George W. Bush White House, said it was important not to constantly rely on the same small group.

“Sometimes when you’re there for a long time, you’re not as open to ideas,” Fratto said. “I think the turnover is really important. People on the outside were in a great position to lay fresh eyes on an issue but to not be caught up in some of the internal day-to-day discussions.”

Still, Axelrod et al can take heart from Fratto’s assertion that there was no reason to lock old advisers out entirely, even if they no longer held official jobs. The seasoned hands, he said, had a lot to offer. 

“They understand the importance of being brutally honest,” he said. “You’re definitely kept close because you know the history and you’re there with lots of knowledge.”


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