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OBAMA CABINET IN CHAOS: 'We are completely marginalized'...

OBAMA CABINET IN CHAOS: 'We are completely marginalized'...

(POLITICO) -- Steven Chu is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, a brilliant innovator whose research fills several all-but-incomprehensible paragraphs of a Wikipedia entry that spans his achievements in single-molecule physics, the slowing of atoms through the use of lasers and the invention of something called an “optical tweezer.” President Barack Obama even credits Chu with solving the 2010 Gulf oil spill, claiming that Chu strolled into BP’s office and “essentially designed the cap that ultimately worked.” With rare exception, Chu is the smartest guy in the room, and that includes the Cabinet Room, which he occupied uneasily as secretary of energy from 2009 to the spring of 2013.

But the president’s aides didn’t quite see Chu that way. He might have been the only Obama administration official with a Nobel other than the president himself, but inside the West Wing of the White House Chu was considered a smart guy who said lots of stupid things, a genius with an appallingly low political IQ—“clueless,” as deputy chief of staff Jim Messina would tell colleagues at the time.

In April 2009, Chu joined Obama’s entourage for one of the administration’s first overseas trips, to Trinidad and Tobago for a Summit of the Americas focused on economic development. Chu was not scheduled to address the media, but reporters kept bugging Josh Earnest, a young staffer, who sheepishly approached his boss, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, with the ask. “No way,” Gibbs told him.

“Come on,” Earnest said. “The guy came all the way down here. Why don’t we just have him talk about all the stuff he’s doing?”

Gibbs reluctantly assented. Then Chu took the podium to tell the tiny island nation that it might soon, sorry to say, be underwater—which not only insulted the good people of Trinidad and Tobago but also raised the climate issue at a time when the White House wanted the economy, and the economy only, on the front burner. “I think the Caribbean countries face rising oceans, and they face increase in the severity of hurricanes,” Chu said. “This is something that is very, very scary to all of us. … The island states … some of them will disappear.”

Earnest slunk backstage. “OK, we’ll never do that again,” he said as Gibbs glared. A phone rang. It was White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel calling Messina to snarl, “If you don’t kill [Chu], I’m going to.”

As Air Force One headed back to Washington, Messina found Chu—who has “no recollection” of this exchange, a person close to him says—sitting at the long table in the plane’s conference room. “What did you say?” Messina demanded, according to a witness. “What were you thinking?” he yelled. “And how, exactly, was this fucking on message?”

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Sixteen years ago, president Bill Clinton’s secretary of labor, Robert Reich, summed up the frustrations of adjusting to life in the Cabinet, where even a close personal relationship with the president, dating to their Oxford days, didn’t spare him from being bossed around by arrogant West Wing nobodies. “From the view of the White House staff, cabinet officials are provincial governors presiding over alien, primitive territories,” Reich wrote in a classic of the pissed-off-secretary genre, Locked in the Cabinet. “Anything of any importance occurs in the national palace.”

Sept. 10, 2009: Obama reflects during a meeting with his full Cabinet in the White House.
Pete Souza/White House. All photos filtered through Instagram.

Two presidents later, the Cabinet is a swarm of 23 people that includes 15 secretaries and eight other Cabinet-rank officers. And yet never has the job of Cabinet secretary seemed smaller. The staffers who rule Obama’s West Wing often treat his Cabinet as a nuisance: At the top of the pecking order are the celebrity power players, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to be warily managed; at the bottom, what they see as a bunch of well-intentioned political naifs only a lip-slip away from derailing the president’s agenda. Chu might have been the first Obama Cabinet secretary to earn the disdain of White House aides, but he was hardly the last.

“We are completely marginalized … until the shit hits the fan,” says one former Cabinet deputy secretary, summing up the view of many officials I interviewed. “If your question is: Did the president rely a lot on his Cabinet as a group of advisers? No, he didn’t,” says former Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Continue reading via Politico Magazine...

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