With little more than two years left in his administration, former administration officials are deserting President Barack Obama like rats on a sinking ship. The latest betrayal comes from Clinton loyalist Leon Panetta—former Democratic congressman, White House chief of staff, CIA director and secretary of defense.
This isn’t how it was supposed to go.
In 2009, taking a page from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling account of Abraham Lincoln’s first administration, Obama proactively assembled a “team of rivals” for his administration that included Democratic-primary opponent Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, who also ran against Obama in the early-2008 primaries. To the chagrin of many Obama supporters, the new president seemed to be going out of his way to make peace with the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, not only appointing Clinton secretary of state but also allowing her surrogates to access plum posts in the State Department.
Obama’s graciousness extended beyond party lines as he personally convinced Secretary Robert Gates, a Republican holdover from the George W. Bush administration, to stay at the Defense Department as the untested commander in chief sought to wind down wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gates’ memoir, published earlier this year, criticized Obama for being overly concerned with the political, rather than strategic, consequences of military decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Panetta’s new memoir, as well as the interviews he’s giving to promote the book, goes further. The former White House insider accuses the president of displaying a “frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause,” flaws that have produced a reactive, rather than a proactive, leader who “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities.”
Indeed, there are parts of Panetta’s memoir and recent round of interviews promoting the book that read like talking points straight from the Republican National Committee. They have already been seized upon by prominent conservative politicians, including Louisiana governor and presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal, as evidence of incompetence in the White House.
In truth, these allegations more accurately reveal the complex motives that inspire former government officials to throw their bosses under the bus for a chance to make a quick profit and revise history. Gates, Panetta and, to a lesser extent, Clinton have all either distanced themselves or flat-out abandoned foreign policy decisions that they were influential in shaping as part of the president’s Cabinet.
Such betrayals, and their cumulative impact on the nation’s first black president, explain, in part, why Obama relies almost exclusively on a small circle of loyal advisers, led by White House senior adviser and close personal friend Valerie Jarrett. The president, like all leaders, is more likely to follow the advice of those whose counsel is guided by larger interests than personal fame, political ambition or financial gain.
The Monday-morning quarterbacking that we’ve seen from former Cabinet members regarding ISIS, Syria and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq is not only disappointing. It is also unworthy of the high-profile positions they once occupied. And the vaunted team of rivals has turned out to be more like a team of backstabbers, eager to demonstrate their own supposed smarts and patriotism at the direct expense of the president who chose them.
This speaks volumes about Obama’s political judgment, which too often finds him contorting himself politically to win over enemies at the expense of his most loyal base (yes, this means you, African-American voters). But the strongest indictment, of course, is reserved for those whose purpose upon leaving government is to dish the dirt in hopes of selling books or settling scores.
Perhaps if Obama seizes the time left in his administration to place more faith in friends instead of frenemies, his efforts will have all been worth it. For now, though, a White House under siege is left with an even smaller circle of trust to advise a president in dire need of fresh perspectives.
Peniel E. Joseph, a contributing editor at The Root, is professor and founding director, the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America, Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama and Stokely: A Life. Follow him on Twitter.