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The Bureaucracy on Autopilot

On October 22, Kathleen Sebelius gave an interview to CNN’s Sanjay Gupta about the disastrous ObamaCare rollout, especially the “glitch”-plagued Healthcare.gov. What she told CNN was that President Obama was not aware of the problems with the site–“despite insurance companies’ complaints and the site’s crashing during a test run,” CNN added–until after the website launched.

How involved the president was on his signature health-care legislation became a subject of interest, since Sebelius was obviously trying to absolve her boss of blame for the project’s massive failures. So it was Sebelius’s fault, then? Well, not exactly, according to those who wished to either clear Sebelius’s name or paint her as an a out-of-touch apparatchik, depending on your interpretation. The day of her CNN interview the New York Times ran a story on Sebelius’s involvement in the project:

Republicans insist the buck stops with the secretary. But although Ms. Sebelius runs the Department of Health and Human Services, the agency directly responsible for the health care law, there are questions about how deeply she was involved in the development of the troubled Web site.

“Kathleen has the title, but she doesn’t have the responsibility or in many respects the kind of wide authority and access to the president that she really needs to make a difference,” said one person close to Ms. Sebelius and the White House, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss internal decision-making. “Everybody thinks that she’s the driving force, but unfortunately she’s not.”

Just who is steering this ship? Your guess is as good as Obama’s. Part of this is strategic, as I wrote last month: the president’s pursuit of plausible deniability at all costs often crowds out responsible decision making. But another part has to do with what Glenn Thrush writes about for the debut cover story of Politico Magazine. The president has sidelined his Cabinet to a degree that is unprecedented, according to Thrush.

In his fairly successful quest to have the media portray his Cabinet of like-minded mediocrities as a “team of rivals,” Obama wanted these heavy hitters to be seen and not heard. They were there to show the press that they were there. See how bipartisan Obama is? He has Ray LaHood serving as his secretary of transportation. See how much of a unifier the president is? He has asked two of his opponents in the nominating contest to serve as his vice president and his secretary of state. See how willing he is to be challenged intellectually? He has Nobel laureate Steven Chu as his energy secretary.

But these secretaries didn’t realize the president wanted them solely as decorative tree ornaments. So when Chu made a politically clumsy remark while giving a talk in Trinidad and Tobago during a trip abroad with administration figures, Rahm Emanuel, then the president’s chief of staff, called political advisor Jim Messina with a message: “If you don’t kill [Chu], I’m going to.”

Thrush reports:

For any modern president, the advantages of hoarding power in the White House at the expense of the Cabinet are obvious—from more efficient internal communication and better control of external messaging to avoiding messy confirmation battles and protecting against pesky congressional subpoenas. But over the course of his five years in office, Obama has taken this White House tendency to an extreme, according to more than 50 interviews with current and former secretaries, White House staffers and executive branch officials, who described his Cabinet as a restless nest of ambition, fits-and-starts achievement and power-jockeying under a shadow of unfulfilled promise.

That’s a far cry from the vision Obama sketched out in the months leading up to his 2008 election. Back then, he waxed expansive about the Cabinet, promising to rejuvenate the institution as a venue for serious innovation and genuine decision making. “I don’t want to have people who just agree with me,” he told Time magazine, after reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s classic account of President Abraham Lincoln and his advisers, Team of Rivals. “I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone.”

Obama, many of his associates now concede, never really intended to be pushed out of his comfort zone. While he personally recruited stars such as Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, most other picks for his first Cabinet were made by his staff, with less involvement from the president. “[Bill] Clinton spent almost all of his time picking the Cabinet at the expense of the White House staff; Obama made the opposite mistake,” says a person close to both presidents.

The most revealing part of that is not that Obama “never really intended to be pushed out of his comfort zone.” That much was obvious to anyone not in the tank for the president. Rather, it’s that the fact that he “never really intended to be pushed out of his comfort zone” is now clear even to those close to the president. He didn’t want to be challenged after all, they realized only too late.

And it was a learning experience for Obama too. So he downgraded in his second term to people like John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, the yes-men Obama always wanted. And so, it is no surprise that his agenda is in tatters, especially the disaster that is ObamaCare thus far. And it’s also no surprise that no one knows precisely who to blame, though the buck should really stop with the president. The bureaucracy is running on autopilot, and it’s running aground.