- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2010

The White House has seen a stunning pre-election exodus of high-level staffers, culminating in the departure over the last two weeks of President Obama’s chief of staff and national security adviser.

The string of departures, which includes two of Mr. Obama’s top three economic advisers, has left longtime administration-watchers wondering whether the moves are part of an effort by the president to clean house or are merely part of the natural political cycle, as the White House contends.

Friday’s resignation of National Security Adviser James L. Jones Jr., a retired Marine general, came one week after the president bid farewell to Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, and Mr. Obama similarly made a statement to the press announcing the news.

“We’ve spared no effort to keep the American people safe, while also repairing old alliances, building new partnerships, and restoring America’s leadership in the 21st century,” Mr. Obama said, tapping Mr. Jones’ deputy, Thomas E. Donilon, to replace the 40-year military veteran. “Through these challenges, Jim has always been a steady voice in Situation Room sessions, daily briefings, and with meetings with foreign leaders, while also representing our country abroad with allies and partners in every region of the world.”

The recent departures followed those of budget chief Peter R. Orszag and chief economist Christina Romer this summer. Earlier this month, economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers announced he’s stepping down at the end of the year.

Those moves came after earlier shake-ups, including the director of national intelligence, Mr. Obama’s social secretary and the White House counsel.

The administration has played down reshuffling, saying that these are demanding jobs and that many of the staffers told Mr. Obama they were planning on serving for only about two years. But some political observers say the timing of the personnel switches - just weeks out from critical midterm elections in which Republicans are poised to gain seats in both chambers - is unusual, and could suggest a lack of enthusiasm among key staffers.

“It’s a slow-motion housecleaning, which I assume is designed in part so nobody asks the fundamental question” of why the president’s top aides are all leaving, Republican strategist Mike McKenna said. “It never happens … you tend to roll out the month after the election, not the month before.”

In 2006, President George W. Bush accepted the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld immediately after Republicans were roundly defeated at the polls, losing control of both chambers of Congress.

But whatever the reasons for leaving, Mr. McKenna said the exodus suggests there’s an enthusiasm gap in the White House itself.

“That sends a message to everybody that, look, the guys at the top aren’t even committed to this thing anymore. They’re starting to think more about themselves and their next career gig than the victory of the squad,” he argued. “It’s such a fundamental rule, and it’s being ignored so casually, and no one’s saying anything about it.”

While the departures have come from each of three main areas - Mr. Obama’s political, economic and national security teams - the administration has explained each of them as being routine or the result of a special set of circumstances.

For example, Mr. Emanuel left to pursue a bid for mayor of Chicago after the city’s longtime leader opted not to seek re-election, while Mr. Summers, aides said, was at risk of losing tenure at Harvard if he did not return.

“When you’re in the White House and you’re dealing with an issue as big as the economy is right now in the eyes of the American people, it’s an all-consuming job. So it’s understandable that after 15 or 18 or 20 months, people are going to want to go back to what they were doing before,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters last month.

Given the political landscape and the likelihood that Democrats will lose at least some seats in Congress, Mr. Obama faces a challenge in replacing his top aides. Activists on the left who took issue with Mr. Emanuel and Mr. Summers - the two men were maligned for being too pro-business - are calling for more progressive successors.

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