Why Obama Won't Fire Kathleen Sebelius

The president has a personal connection to his HHS secretary. Besides, he doesn't like chastising cabinet members—and probably couldn't replace her anyway.
Jason Reed/Reuters

With the disastrous Healthcare.gov rollout, you would think that if President Obama had not fired Kathleen Sebelius by now, he would have at least seriously considered it. And you'd think she might have readied a resignation letter or even offered to quit. But those close to the White House and Sebelius say there has been no such come-to-Jesus moment between the two and they don't see one happening anytime soon. In short, Sebelius is staying.

Speculation has swirled since the sputtering start of Obamacare that the Health and Human Services secretary would take the fall—and that the only reason the president hadn't yet swung the ax was a pragmatic one: Any replacement could be held up by Senate Republicans as the health care law is re-litigated ad infinitum. But that isn't the case. Those close to the president say that Obama hasn't even thought about dumping Sebelius. "He is interested in solutions, not scapegoats," says top adviser Valerie Jarrett.

Chalk part of it up to the hands-off approach Obama takes when it comes to his Cabinet and a self-preserving one favored by Sebelius's. Throw in a mutual affection that's just strong enough to keep them bound together, mix in their shared love of basketball, and it's a formula for survival. "She has reminded the president that she made the varsity team in college," jokes Sebelius's brother Donald Gilligan.

A passion for hoops is just one mystic chord between the two lanky pols. A deeper one lies in El Dorado—the Kansas town, not the mythical gold kingdom.

At the end of January 2008, when Obama and Hillary Clinton were fighting it out for endorsements, alternating bruising wins and losses in New Hampshire and Iowa and Nevada, Sebelius, then the Kansas governor, took a leap and endorsed Obama in El Dorado, not far from Wichita. The endorsement mattered. It came from a woman, a New Democrat, and a pantsuit-favoring governor who wasn't endorsing Hillary. At the time, Sebelius enjoyed a high profile as an up-and-coming Dem who had delivered the response to George W. Bush's State of the Union speech just a day earlier.

El Dorado was where Obama's maternal grandfather had been raised, with the hometown of his grandmother just up the road. "I wasn't there that day," recalls Jarrett. "But I've heard a lot about it. It reflected on her strength and independence." "They've only gotten closer since then," says Dan Glickman, the longtime Democratic congressman from Wichita who has a unique vantage point having served as Agriculture secretary and knowing both.

Indeed, the ties between the two have grown. Sebelius is not one of the guys like Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough or a social friend like Susan Rice. But the president has been impressed both by Sebelius's persistence and her loyalty and, hard as it is to imagine now, her political smarts as another Midwesterner who's won statewide. It's easy to forget that the road to Obamacare's passage was brutal and there was no more enthusiastic cheerleader than Sebelius—whose moderate Kansas credentials helped sell the plan. Before that, she stepped into the HHS slot without fuss when Senator Tom Daschle's nomination faltered before it began.

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Matthew Cooper is a managing editor (White House) for National Journal.

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