Loyalty is a two-way street

The departure of two top Obama aides in the past week raises questions about how the president will handle big policy issues on his plate.
The departure of two top Obama aides in the past week raises questions about how the president will handle big policy issues on his plate.

It's best to avoid getting drawn into stories about political intrigue and rivalries and to focus on bottom-line policy results in judging presidencies and presidential candidacies. But two events over the past week in the Obama White House were symptoms of internal strain. They both involved the exits of highly professional and respected senior staff members.

Gregory Craig, Obama's White House counsel, was fired after enduring months of media rumors regarding his impending discharge. The rumors emanated from White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. I have known Craig since he left Yale Law School in the early 1970s and became active in the anti-Vietnam War movement. He was and is a highly intelligent, literate, and principled person. He later served for five years as Sen. Ted Kennedy's foreign-policy staff advisor and also served for a time in President Clinton's State Department before taking over Clinton's defense in impeachment proceedings.

Despite his Clinton-era service, Craig signed on early with the Obama presidential campaign. He was active in the transition process and thought to be runner-up to Gen. Jim Jones for appointment as Obama's national security advisor. One of his first acts as White House counsel was the preparation of an executive order, signed by Obama, to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prisoner facility by the end of this coming January.  Obama had pledged in his presidential campaign to do this immediately on taking office.

The Guantanamo shutdown has proved more difficult than campaigner Obama thought it would be. As delays and difficulties arose earlier this year, news stories began to appear speculating that Craig would lose his job. Then, after Obama's departure for his Asia trip Thursday, the ax fell on Craig.

A few days earlier Anita Dunn, the White House communications director, also lost her job. I have not known her personally as I have known Craig. But she has had a long career in the capital, beginning with an internship in the Carter White House, and also was respected for her professionalism and integrity in a political consulting field that has more than its quota of hacks and fools.  She was Sen. Bill Bradley's principal advisor in his 2000 challenge to Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination. Like Craig, she committed quite early to Obama — running a preparatory operation attached to his Senate office before he declared his candidacy — and was regarded as one of his four senior campaign advisors, along with Chicagoans David Plouffe, David Axelrod, and Valerie Jarrett.

News stories speculated that Dunn walked the plank because she was the White House's prime mover in a highly visible campaign against right-wing-leaning Fox News. There was media backlash against the campaign, even among liberal journalists, because it appeared to cross the line of appropriate executive-branch meddling with the media. Whether Dunn was the author of the anti-Fox News campaign or merely acting at Emanuel's bidding is unclear. She, in any case, took the fall.

Neither Craig nor Dunn was a part of Obama's Chicago inner circle. But they clearly were in the next tier of close-in White House advisors and made quite early commitments to his presidential campaign when it was still thought a long shot.

As I learned of Craig's and Dunn's exits I thought as well of Anthony Lake, Clinton's first-term national security advisor, who (as Craig) also made an early commitment to Obama despite earlier Clinton ties. He was Obama's principal foreign policy/national security advisor during the campaign season, introducing him as well to others in the field. But, surprisingly, he received no appointment in the Obama administration.

White House staff come and go. But such senior, professional players as Craig and Dunn are usually not among the first to depart — particularly when they were important in the incumbent president's election efforts.

Obama has a full plate of near-term challenges, including financial and economic recovery; legislative initiatives in health care, the environment, and financial reform; and his still pending decision about U.S. policy in Afghanistan. He will not be helped by the departure of close aides who probably expected two-way loyalty.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.