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Posted at 6 a.m. on Dec. 13, 2013
It’s not very challenging to write about the countless reasons why Donald Trump would not make a good president. But there is one thing the Donald does that might be useful in the Oval Office — he fires people.
As Ezra Klein noted in his recent Bloomberg column, there have been multiple opportunities for President Barack Obama to fire someone (the HealthCare.gov rollout being the most recent, glaring example). Yet the president chose a path of lesser resistance.
“Somewhere in this chain of colossal, consequential screwups,” wrote Klein, “there are surely a few people who deserve to be fired. The White House tends to dismiss such criticism. Indeed, Obama aides pride themselves on rising above it, viewing it as politically motivated or, when proffered by administration allies, derived from a crude desire for retribution. There might, at times, be truth to that. But firing and replacing underperforming staff is also a key element of effective management.”
But the hunkering down phenomenon is not limited to Obama. Firing people is apparently just something presidents don’t like to do.
One one hand, it could be seen as a point of weakness, an admission that a person initially appointed or hired by the president was not up to the task. But on the other hand, publicly firing someone could easily be seen as a sign of leadership and set an example of accountability.
President George W. Bush had more than a couple of opportunities to fire someone. After the administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina, firing Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Michael D. Brown should have been an easy decision. Instead he was given a public “heck of a job,” pushed aside and later resigned.
Scooter Libby was also a potential fall guy. The former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney didn’t resign from his White House post until after he was indicted for lying to federal investigations in the Valerie Plame incident. Of course, Bush’s unique relationship with Cheney made firing Libby a very complicated matter.
Going even further back, the trend is resignations, even when it was widely known that the individual was being pushed out.
It was no secret that White House Chief of Staff Donald Regan was pushed out by President Ronald Reagan (or more specifically, First Lady Nancy Reagan). And Bert Lance, President Jimmy Carter’s first director of the Office of Management and Budget, was allowed to resign after less than a year in his position when allegations of improper conduct swirled around him.
After checking with some veteran White House watchers, it’s just plain difficult to find an example of a high-profile presidential firing.
One of the best cases might be the so-called Halloween Massacre, and even that is complicated. In early November 1975, President Gerald Ford replaced National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger with Brent Scowcroft, Director of Central Intelligence William Colby with George Bush, and Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger with Donald Rumsfeld. But even then, Kissinger remained on as secretary of State and Colby was offered another position, and there is a theory that Cheney and Rumsfeld, not President Ford, were behind the moves — not exactly a sign of presidential strength.
Multiple presidents have made high-profile moves with generals and chains of command including Obama with Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal and President Harry Truman with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But the military is almost an entirely different animal.
When something goes wrong in the executive branch, lower level officials may seem like easier targets to take a fall. But they can also be more complicated to terminate.
Lois Lerner, Internal Revenue Service director of tax exempt groups, seemed like a candidate for firing after the agency admitted to targeting conservative groups for extra scrutiny. But Lerner conveniently retired, likely, at least in part, because public employees can be very difficult to fire, as explained by Forbes.
A great example is Paul Prouty, the General Services Administration official who was let go in the wake of news reports over lavish spending at a Las Vegas conference. According to The Washington Post, a judge ordered that Prouty be rehired with 11 months of back pay.
And sometimes, even when a president fires people, it just creates more problems. Such was the case of President Bill Clinton and the seven people fired in the White House Travel Office.
“It’s a delicate balance,” according to Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “Does it demoralize the rest of the appointees to then hunker down and not make a mistake or does it shake them up enough to be more diligent?”
In short, a president doesn’t want to be seen as heartless or cruel to his most loyal supporters, Ornstein added.
It’s debatable whether firing someone is a display of strong leadership. But Obama’s polling on that issue is slipping. According to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 39 percent gave Obama a good rating on “having strong leadership qualities” while 41 percent gave him a poor rating — the lowest marks of his presidency on that question in that survey.
Firing someone might not turn around those numbers, but until a president makes a public stand and fires a previously loyal supporter for incompetence, we’ll never know the true impact on public opinion.