WASHINGTON — Working in the Obama administration is becoming a family affair.
President Obama staged a ceremony in the Rose Garden on Wednesday afternoon to send off national security adviser Tom Donilon and to welcome a successor, but he was by no means parting with the Donilon family. In the front row for the ceremony was Tom’s brother Mike, the counselor to Vice President Biden. Seated next to Mike was Tom’s wife, Cathy Russell, who had been chief of staff to Biden’s wife, Jill, and who has just been chosen to be Obama’s ambassador on global women’s issues.
Replacing Donilon at the National Security Council is longtime Obama aide Susan Rice, whose job as United Nations ambassador will go to Samantha Power, another aide from Obama’s Senate days. Power is the wife of Cass Sunstein, who was a senior White House official during Obama’s first term.
Sunstein was out of the country, so Obama’s top economics adviser, Gene Sperling, served as family photographer and baby sitter during the ceremony, using an iPhone with a pink cover to shoot photos of Power’s children and then chasing Power’s son, Declan, when he made an unauthorized sprint for the Oval Office in pursuit of his mom after the event. (Obama opened the door for the toddler.)
Technically, you don’t have to be related to an Obama adviser to get a job in this administration. But with few exceptions, loyalists and friends are being promoted, with little new blood admitted at the highest levels. The man who boasted about creating a “team of rivals” in his first term has this time been circling the wagons so tightly that people are bound to get motion sickness.
Obama sent his chief of staff, Jack Lew, to be Treasury secretary, giving the chief-of-staff job to Denis McDonough, who has advised Obama for nearly a decade. White House homeland security adviser John Brennan was named CIA chief and was replaced by Justice Department official Lisa Monaco. Michael Froman, a White House staffer who worked with Obama on the Harvard Law Review, was named U.S. trade representative.
To fill top vacancies on his White House staff, Obama promoted aides Dan Pfeiffer, Jennifer Palmieri and Rob Nabors, who join the senior ranks with other longtime aides such as Chicago friend Valerie Jarrett, Alyssa Mastromonaco (who has worked for Obama since 2005) and Pete Rouse (who was Obama’s chief of staff in the Senate). Penny Pritzker of Chicago, a top fundraiser for the president, was tapped to be the next commerce secretary.
The coziness extends to the highest ranks: Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel served alongside Obama on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
In one sense, it speaks well of the president that he commands and rewards loyalty. But his use of loyalists (such as Rice) in many cases to replace more independent figures (such as Donilon) who served in his first term contradicts the wisdom of Obama himself, who in 2008 spoke of emulating Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet. “I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone,” he told Time’s Joe Klein.
Now Obama is safely in his comfort zone with loyalists such as McDonough, whom the president described as “one of my closest and most trusted advisers.” He added, “We all love Denis so much.”
And Obama’s aides love him back. But do they love him too much to tell him when he’s wrong? The scene in the Rose Garden on Wednesday was not encouraging; it looked like a family reunion.
McDonough, in the front row, ordered a cold bottle of water for Tom Nides, a former deputy secretary of state, who was perspiring in the second row. Other top officials — Jarrett, Mastromonaco, Froman, Tony Blinken and John Holdren — also sat in the first two rows, while perhaps 100 other White House aides, including economist Alan Krueger, budget director Sylvia Mathews Burwell and press secretary Jay Carney, crowded around the perimeter.
With lavish familiarity, Obama praised Rice: “She has a great tennis game, and a pretty good basketball game. Her brother’s here, who I play with occasionally. And it runs in the family, throwing the occasional elbow but hitting the big shot.”
He turned to Power and, departing from his script on the teleprompter, boasted that “I think she won the Pulitzer Prize at the age of 15 or 16.”
The two women returned the praise, then walked back to the Oval Office, arm in arm with Obama. The departing Donilon was not included in the three-way embrace.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.