The Biggest Flaw Of 'The Obama Team'

In this excerpt from National Insecurity: American Leadership In An Age Of Fear, David Rothkopf, CEO of the FP Group and National Security Council expert, compiles candid interviews with more than a hundred key players to reveal the hidden struggles and shocking failures of Obama’s administration.

Whereas it was the vice president and the secretary of defence with the back channel under Bush, it was Obama’s closest political advisors and former campaign aides who enjoyed an insider track that some of their cabinet colleagues (and even their national security advisor) did not. 

A hint as to how that emerged is suggested by  [former National Security Advisor in the Obama administration Tom] Donilon’s comments about the regular internal White House meetings, which ultimately were more influential in driving the policy process than were the formal National Security Council (NSC) structures: “perhaps most importantly we have had a daily discussion each morning around the president’s daily briefing. Again we’ve done this quite consciously. It’s thirty to forty minutes. We have the intelligence briefing at the top of the meeting.”

Obama national security councilPete Souza/The White HouseUS President Obama meets with National Security staff in the Oval Office in this White House photograph taken on March 8, 2012.

“And then, every morning since January 20, 2009, we have made a presentation either commenting on the stuff that’s in the intelligence or moving around the world to key things that are happening or saying ‘we have a couple decisions we have to make today’ or ‘Hillary Clinton really needs a decision on this and she has asked me to bring this to you today’ or ‘we have a personnel issue that we really need to work through.”

“Alternatively, he might say, ‘I read X, Y, or Z overnight and I want to have a conversation about that now.’ And you know, these conversations have built upon one another. We also would try to take, every Thursday afternoon, ninety minutes or two hours with the president for something we would call ‘national security staff time.’ And in those sessions we would concentrate on one or two issues where he can have a detailed discussion.”

Although Donilon argues that this approach has resulted in a great deal of comity among the principals in the administration, others including even senior officals, very early on began to sense that the daily inner circle meetings with the president left some NSC principals out of the loop.

Hillary clinton and tom donilonCharles Dharapak/APUS Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stands with National Security Adviser Tom Donilon at the ASEAN and East Asia summit on Friday, Nov. 18, 2011.

Attending these daily meetings from the outset were the president, James Jones, Tom Donilon, John Brennan, Rahm Emanuel, and, depending on their role in the administration at that time, Denis McDonough and others.

Donilon asserts that political advisors like Axelrod and Jarrett never participated in these meetings, although administration insiders with whom I spoke felt they regularly influenced outcomes via the parallel formal and informal political advisory process that took place.

Bill Burns thought the Obama team had started well but he recognised an early sign of a flaw that would grow: “I think part of a bigger structural problem that I’ve seen over the past thirty years is that too much gets pushed up too high in the system … Much of what gets talked about in deputies and principals meetings now, compared to what I remember as a note-taker on the NSC staff in the late ’80s, can or should be handled at the assistant secretary level.

“This is a challenge that has been building for a number of years, and it’s not unique to the current administration. But what it does, I think, is squeeze time and attention out of some of the bigger strategic issues that ought to be discussed.”

Obama staffREUTERS/Jonathan ErnstU.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L) completes a meeting with staff, including White House Counsel Neil Eggleston (L) and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough (R), before departing for travel to Indiana, from the White House in Washington, October 3, 2014.

One other senior Obama official said of the inner-circle-dominated process: “the trouble with this is that it excluded a lot of people and ideas that should have been at the table. And it was terrible for morale in the agencies. Policymaking by small groups is sometimes needed, but the key is to have the right people in these groups and those in the Obama inner circle were not always the right ones.

“And often it took a long time for those in these small meetings to communicate with others in the administration, so much time was wasted in people doing work that they need not have done because they were going in a different direction from the president. Few people in the administration felt they were on the Obama Team.”

David Rothkopf is the CEO and editor of the FP Group. The FP Group publishes Foreign Policy magazine,, and presents FP Events. 

Excerpted with permission from National Insecurity: American Leadership In An Age Of Fear. Copyright © 2014 by David Rothkopf. All rights reserved.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.