Presidents facing disastrous midterm election results almost always respond by shaking up their staffs to meet changed congressional realities and signal to voters that their message has been heard. But every indication is that President Obama is going to be immune from the impulse that gripped Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, George W. Bush, and Clinton.
"Anyone who leaves will leave of their own volition, not because they were pushed," promised one longtime confidante to the president. There will be no presidential firing spree no matter how bad the news on Election Day.
This will disappoint many Democrats in Congress who blame the White House staff for leaving them without sufficient political cover in a tough campaign, as well as many Republicans who view this White House as ham-handed in its dealings with the opposition party. But it will not surprise many in either party who have come to expect this kind of non-reaction from the "No Drama" president who prides himself on maintaining a steady course.
From the day of his first inauguration, Obama has shown an aversion to firing people. Partly, that is because he resists getting rid of a loyalist just because the Washington crowd tells him to do it. Partly, it is because he believes he has a better understanding of the person's contribution to his administration than does the crowd. And partly, it is because he thinks the person already in place is the best qualified to fix a mess instead of taking the time to train a new person. Certainly that was at play in his reluctance to dismiss Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius when she was under fire for the start-up of the health care website. And when he was being pushed to fire Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Both eventually left, but in neither case did Obama want to fire them.
Obama also believes that you can come to regret too-hasty firings. That was the case in 2010 when the White House pushed for the speedy dismissal of Shirley Sherrod at the Agriculture Department, only to discover too late that what she had said wasn't really as inflammatory as it had been portrayed.
Like almost all previous presidents, this one is driven by a loyalty to staffers who have been loyal to him and who have been there since he launched his long-shot candidacy for the Oval Office. So it should be no surprise that he resists those on Capitol Hill who fault his communications strategy and question the advice he gets from longtime adviser Dan Pfeiffer. Or the critics who blame National Security Adviser Susan Rice for a policy seen as too reactive and halting in the battle against Islamic militants in the Middle East. Both Pfeiffer and Rice have been with Obama since that frigid day when he announced his candidacy in Springfield in 2007.
Other presidents, though, have overcome this loyalty to make needed changes after watching their parties suffer catastrophic losses in Congress during rough midterm elections. Eisenhower pushed out his top aide, Chief of Staff Sherman Adams, only 34 days after Republicans lost 48 House seats and 13 Senate seats in 1958. Reagan dumped his controversial chief of staff, Donald Regan, two months after Republicans lost control of the Senate and got hit by the Iran-Contra scandal in 1986. Clinton changed his political team after Democrats got clobbered in 1994. And Bush fired Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld less than 12 hours after the polls closed in 2006, with Republicans losing both the House and the Senate.
Bush's aides explained that the president believed he had to "restructure" his White House to salvage his final two years in office and work with those freshly in control of the legislative branch. There is no indication from Obama that he will feel a similar need. And there is no target with anywhere near as high a public profile as Adams, Regan, or Rumsfeld. "None of his folks are as high-profile as Rummy," said Jerry Austin, the Ohio-based Democratic strategist. There is no one Obama could sacrifice that would send the same "I-got-the-message" signal. "No one he could fire would make a difference to Ohio Democrats," Austin said.
Further complicating the situation is that no Obama staffer has drawn as much ire as the president himself has. On Capitol Hill, they are angry at the president, not a staffer. In the states where Democrats are trying to survive in high-profile Senate races, they are angry at Obama's own recent statements—some of them spoken off-the-cuff, not crafted by a misguided speechwriter. And they know that Obama can't fire himself.
William Galston was there inside the White House in 1994 when Democrats lost Congress. He was Clinton's domestic-policy adviser and recalls the demand for changes and firings and the ways that Clinton reorganized his White House. But he doubts you will see anything like that after this election. "For a president to shake up a White House is equivalent to a president shaking himself up," he said. "When Bill Clinton reorganized the White House just slightly before and after the 1994 debacle, he was also shaking up his presidency."
He added, "I think it would be a stretch to say that Barack Obama has gone through enough that he would shake up his presidency. He prides himself on steadiness and his ability to take the long view. I would be surprised if this president responded to election losses ... by demanding everybody's resignation."
Galston recalled that it didn't work out well the last time Obama tried to reorganize his White House—the 2011 decision to bring in William Daley to impose some discipline as chief of staff. The experiment lasted only 12 months before Daley was pushed out. "If the turn to Daley had really represented a permanent turn in the president's thinking or in the White House, then it would have worked out differently," Galston said. "But they rejected him like an autoimmune body to a virus."
Though some dejected or burned-out aides may decide to leave of their own volition, the most likely reaction by Obama is to press on, his belief in his own rightness unshaken. Noting that incumbent parties almost always get crushed in sixth-year midterms, Galston said Washington should not be surprised if the president asks himself: "Why am I going to start firing people for something that happens routinely just because of the rhythms of American politics?'