Why Obama won’t axe his economic advisers

Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010
    Trying to draw some direct implications between the country’s economic doldrums and the Obama administration, House Minority Leader John Boehner called for the firing of the administration’s economic team, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
    Boehner may just be looking to score some easy political points, but he is following in a grand tradition. With nearly every electoral or polling downturn, a president is faced with calls to remove cabinet members and other senior advisors.
    Fortunately for Geithner, and for the other cabinet members, Obama certainly knows firing members of his team most likely wont help his or his party’s cause. Cabinet members, who serve as the face for a host of political decisions, are lighting rods for attacks. By calling for their removal, political opponents are able to claim that the president is unable to properly choose or manage his subordinates, and is therefore not qualified for the job.
    As past presidents have seen, there is little benefit to having the cabinet member removed. All this action does is open the President, and his party, to criticism for blatant political opportunism and disloyalty for not taking a needed action before an election.
    Instead, presidents tend to wait until just after an election to remove Cabinet members. George W. Bush took such action with the canning of his first Secretary of Treasury Paul O’Neill in 2002, just after the midterm elections. Lyndon Johnson took a more indirect route to removing his embattled defense secretary. Johnson got Robert McNamara appointed head of the World Bank, an appointment the relieved McNamara found out about in the morning newspaper.
    But Obama should look at one recent example, and one possible counterexample, to see the impact a firing will have for a president. Both sagas starred a president named Bush.
    In the waning days of the 1992 election, in an attempt to prove that he had seen the light on Reaganomics in the face of a recession, George H.W. Bush announced that if he was elected to a second term, he would dump Treasury Secretary Nick Brady and Budget Director Dick Darman. Conservatives blamed Brady and Darman for Bush’s major retreat from his “no new taxes” pledge.
    Bush was hoping that laying down a sacrifice in the persona of Brady and Darman would turn his political fortunes around. But this desperate gambit failed, with voters laying the fault for the recession at the hands of the boss, not the employees.
    The second Bush took the opposite tact of his father. With the Iraq War weighing down the Republican Party in 2006, George W. Bush was under heavy fire for refusing to get rid of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Bush had already faced down calls for removing Rumsfeld prior to the 2004 elections, holding off on removing him after the Abu Ghraib scandals put an early tarnish on his re-election bid. But with the public turning sour on the war, Bush publicly confirmed his support for the embattled secretary of defense.
    Though accounts have showed that George W. Bush blamed Brady and Darman for his fathers defeat, he consciously chose not to repeat his father’s strategy. In fact, he took the opposite approach, claiming that Rumsfeld would serve out the rest of his term. It wasn’t because he was being loyal to Rumsfeld, though. After all, he immediately tossed the defense secretary overboard the day after the election.
    The losing Republicans criticized Bush for not acting before the election, but it is questionable whether this action could have helped stave off an electoral nightmare. Even if the firing would have helped the Republicans, and it might very well have worked to turn off some of the Republican base, Rumsfeld was an extreme example. Unlike Geithner and Larry Summers, Rumsfeld’s behavior engendered much of the criticism.
    There is little evidence that Obama is considering getting rid of Geithner or the rest of his top economic advisors or even that he disagrees with their approach to dealing with the recession.
    But even if he wanted to switch gears, he would likely wait for a more opportune time to do it. Firing cabinet members in the face of electoral pressure rarely works out to a president’s benefit. John Boehner knows this. So does Barack Obama.
    This a guest post by Joshua Spivak, a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College and a lawyer. The opinions expressed are his own.