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.
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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.

Sebelius's no-drama style matched Obama's own. Obama appreciated Sebelius being willing to take the fall on the morning-after pill for minors. Even though it meant a virtually unprecedented overruling of a Food and Drug Administration regulation, Sebelius intervened to say the abortifacient could not be sold directly to minors—this after Obama had expressed the concern of having two young daughters under 17. And in the construction of a health care law, Obama thought Sebelius, a former insurance commissioner, deftly brought that industry into the fold.

Indeed, Sebelius is showing no indication of being willing to fall on her sword. She has not drawn up a resignation letter, insiders tell National Journal. Her spokespeople take a hard public line: "The secretary works for the president and the American people," says HHS spokesperson Joanne Peters. "It is notable that many of the people calling on her to resign have also tried to repeal the law."

Sebelius's determination to stay in the Cabinet, at least for now, owes something to her history, as well.

Sebelius, like George W. Bush, is a politician able to tout triumphs her father could not. Jack Gilligan was revered by Ohio Democrats but he was a one-term congressman and a one-term governor whose support of a tax hike led him to lose even in the 1974 post-Watergate Democratic landslide. By contrast, his daughter was reelected governor of a red state and has never lost an election. Gilligan had planned to run for president like most Ohio governors but was pummeled by a tax hike before he had the chance. Sebelius was vetted twice for vice president—by John Kerry and Obama—and, at least until now, has never wholly given up being on a national ticket.

If Sebelius is dug in, Obama has no objections. It's a trait: This president has a profound unwillingness to chew out secretaries when he thinks it's mere politics. "It's not Obama's thing," says a former assistant secretary in the Obama Cabinet. "You never seen him fire anyone. They [i.e. the White House staff] kind of go dark for awhile [when they're upset] and then move on." During the Solyndra mess Obama resisted calls to replace Steven Chu as Energy secretary. After the BP oil spill he never ripped into Interior Secretary Ken Salazar even though the Minerals Management Service, which regulated oil drilling, was under his eyes. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was never chewed out for the Cash for Clunkers program. And Eric Holder has never been at risk.

Because the politics of the Senate make it hard to fire Sebelius, Democrats aren't calling for her head. They know she's there for the duration. "There is no way that [her replacement] could get out of the Senate," says one former Democratic senator. "She's solid. She's not going anywhere."

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

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