Barack Obama's Friendly-Fire Problem

Leon Panetta is the latest former aide to criticize the president publicly. This kind of thing didn't always happen.

Larry Downing/Reuters

Forget the question of whether the Secret Service can protect President Obama from physical threats from strangers. Can no one protect him from the political threats posed by his own friends?

Leon Panetta, who served Obama as both director of central intelligence and secretary of defense, has a book out next week in which he takes issue with White House foreign policy. Time has a timely I-told-you-so excerpt today about Iraq: "My fear, as I voiced to the President and others, was that if the country split apart or slid back into the violence that we’d seen in the years immediately following the U.S. invasion, it could become a new haven for terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. Iraq’s stability was not only in Iraq’s interest but also in ours," Panetta writes.

He and deputies Michele Flournoy and Ash Carter pushed for an agreement that would maintain a larger military presence after the U.S. withdrawal, but the White House pushed back, and as Panetta tells it, things got tense. (It's worth recalling that Flournoy and Carter were both passed over as Panetta's successor in favor of Chuck Hagel, and over the objections of some liberals.)

To my frustration, the White House coordinated the negotiations but never really led them. Officials there seemed content to endorse an agreement if State and Defense could reach one, but without the President’s active advocacy, al-Maliki was allowed to slip away. The deal never materialized. To this day, I believe that a small U.S. troop presence in Iraq could have effectively advised the Iraqi military on how to deal with al-Qaeda’s resurgence and the sectarian violence that has engulfed the country.

This isn't the first time Panetta has criticized Obama—late last month he said Syrian rebels should have been armed sooner—but this is a pointed critique coming at a bad time for the president, who still seems to be in search of a strategy for ISIS that will be both effective and politically viable.

Robert Gates, who preceded Panetta at the Pentagon, has also been willing to publicly criticize the president and his administration. When he published his critical memoir earlier this year, my colleague Peter Osnos suggested that it represented a new precedent—previously, top aides had generally tended not to air their grievances until after the president they served departed 1600 Penn.

But it does seem like Obama has had a particularly rough stretch when it comes to his former confidants. For example:

  • In August, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told my colleague Jeffrey Goldberg, "Great nations need organizing principles, and 'Don’t do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle." It isn't hard to see why Clinton might want to create some distance from Obama and a widely unpopular foreign policy ahead of her own expected presidential run.
  • After quitting the White House in 2010, budget honcho Peter Orszag spilled to New York about the behind-the-scenes soap opera there: "Many of my mentors warned me that despite the ‘no drama’ Obama campaign, once in office this White House would inevitably be like others—and possibly worse. And unfortunately that’s exactly what happened." Just for good measure, he said he never wanted the job.
  • In his 2011 book Confidence Men, Ron Suskind quoted several former top-ranking female staffers who complained of an atmosphere that was male-dominated at best and sexist at worst. “This place would be in court for a hostile workplace. Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women,” former communications director Anita Dunn reportedly said. “I felt like a piece of meat,” said economic adviser Christina Romer.

​How does this compare to George W. Bush? It seems Bush faced less friendly fire, at least while he was in office. The most notable exception was ex-Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, who cooperated with Suskind (him again!) on a scathing indictment of the administration. The book, The Price of Loyalty, argued that Bush was detached and distant, and that September 11 was only ever a pretext for the war in Iraq. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell offered fairly muted criticism of the conduct of the Iraq war after leaving his post. And ex-White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan blasted his former boss, but waited until spring 2008—at which point Bush was a widely disliked lame duck contending with a Democratic Congress anyway. Updated: Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism adviser, was another, unusually strident critic, saying Bush and his team had failed to pay enough attention to al-Qaeda prior to 9/11. (Thanks to Mark Spurlock for pointing Clarke's case out.)

The most enduring friendly fire of the Clinton administration came from former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, in his memoir Locked in the Cabinet, which largely focused on Reich's frustrations as an unabashed liberal in a triangulating administration. George Stephanopoulos focused more on the personalities of the Clintons, including their less flattering traits, in his own book.

I called George Edwards, a presidential historian at Texas A&M University, to check whether the more recent instances just seemed more common, or represent a new trend. He said the willingness to speak about differences with a president while he was still in office was unusual—and all the more peculiar since Gates, Panetta, and Clinton seem to have broad agreement with Obama on many topics and like him personally; there's no animosity. Unlike Reich, they weren't marginalized.

There is some historical precedent, Edwards noted, usually when the part is actively seeking their own office. Teddy Roosevelt ran against his own hand-picked successor in 1912. Postmaster General Jim Farley broke with Franklin Roosevelt when FDR ran for a third term in 1940—claiming a Democratic nomination that Farley desired. Wally Hickel broke with Nixon in 1970, but he was still the secretary of interior at the time; former Attorney General Robert Kennedy assailed Lyndon Johnson during the 1968 presidential run, though he was by then a senator.

So why the shift? There's probably no one theory that explains it all. Glenn Thrush reported in 2013 that Obama seemed never to take much of his Cabinet all that seriously, and didn't make many efforts to keep them happy and feeling valued. Bush, by contrast, made loyalty the paramount value of his White House. It's easy to see how the two approaches could have different outcomes. Or maybe it's just about the faster pace of media and life, and an unwillingness by former secretaries with strong views to let those views go unaired during a key moment.

Whatever the reason, the friendly fire couldn't come at a worse time—weeks before a crucial midterm election—or from a worse place. With friends like these, who needs a Republican House and Senate?