teven Chu is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, a brilliant innovator whose research fills several all-but-incomprehensible paragraphs of a Wikipedia entry that spans his achievements in single-molecule physics, the slowing of atoms through the use of lasers and the invention of something called an "optical tweezer." President Barack Obama even credits Chu with solving the 2010 Gulf oil spill, claiming that Chu strolled into BP's office and "essentially designed the cap that ultimately worked." With rare exception, Chu is the smartest guy in the room, and that includes the Cabinet Room, which he occupied uneasily as secretary of energy from 2009 to the spring of 2013.
But the president's aides didn't quite see Chu that way. He might have been the only Obama administration official with a Nobel other than the president himself, but inside the West Wing of the White House Chu was considered a smart guy who said lots of stupid things, a genius with an appallingly low political IQ-"clueless," as deputy chief of staff Jim Messina would tell colleagues at the time.
In April 2009, Chu joined Obama's entourage for one of the administration's first overseas trips, to Trinidad and Tobago for a Summit of the Americas focused on economic development. Chu was not scheduled to address the media, but reporters kept bugging Josh Earnest, a young staffer, who sheepishly approached his boss, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, with the ask. "No way," Gibbs told him.
"Come on," Earnest said. "The guy came all the way down here. Why don't we just have him talk about all the stuff he's doing?"
Gibbs reluctantly assented. Then Chu took the podium to tell the tiny island nation that it might soon, sorry to say, be underwater-which not only insulted the good people of Trinidad and Tobago but also raised the climate issue at a time when the White House wanted the economy, and the economy only, on the front burner. "I think the Caribbean countries face rising oceans, and they face increase in the severity of hurricanes," Chu said. "This is something that is very, very scary to all of us. ... The island states ... some of them will disappear."
Earnest slunk backstage. "OK, we'll never do that again," he said as Gibbs glared. A phone rang. It was White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel calling Messina to snarl, "If you don't kill [Chu], I'm going to."
As Air Force One headed back to Washington, Messina found Chu-who has "no recollection" of this exchange, a person close to him says-sitting at the long table in the plane's conference room. "What did you say?" Messina demanded, according to a witness. "What were you thinking?" he yelled. "And how, exactly, was this fucking on message?"
Sixteen years ago, president Bill Clinton's secretary of labor, Robert Reich, summed up the frustrations of adjusting to life in the Cabinet, where even a close personal relationship with the president, dating to their Oxford days, didn't spare him from being bossed around by arrogant West Wing nobodies. "From the view of the White House staff, cabinet officials are provincial governors presiding over alien, primitive territories," Reich wrote in a classic of the pissed-off-secretary genre, Locked in the Cabinet. "Anything of any importance occurs in the national palace."
Sept. 10, 2009: Obama reflects during a meeting with his full Cabinet in the White House.
Pete Souza/White House. All photos filtered through Instagram.
Two presidents later, the Cabinet is a swarm of 23 people that includes 15 secretaries and eight other Cabinet-rank officers. And yet never has the job of Cabinet secretary seemed smaller. The staffers who rule Obama's West Wing often treat his Cabinet as a nuisance: At the top of the pecking order are the celebrity power players, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to be warily managed; at the bottom, what they see as a bunch of well-intentioned political naifs only a lip-slip away from derailing the president's agenda. Chu might have been the first Obama Cabinet secretary to earn the disdain of White House aides, but he was hardly the last.
"We are completely marginalized ... until the shit hits the fan," says one former Cabinet deputy secretary, summing up the view of many officials I interviewed. "If your question is: Did the president rely a lot on his Cabinet as a group of advisers? No, he didn't," says former Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Little wonder, then, that Obama has called the group together only rarely, for what by most accounts are not much more than ritualistic team-building exercises: According to CBS News White House reporter Mark Knoller, the Cabinet met 19 times in Obama's first term and four times in the first 10 months of his second term. That's once every three months or so-about as long as you can drive around before you're supposed to change your oil.
For any modern president, the advantages of hoarding power in the White House at the expense of the Cabinet are obvious-from more efficient internal communication and better control of external messaging to avoiding messy confirmation battles and protecting against pesky congressional subpoenas. But over the course of his five years in office, Obama has taken this White House tendency to an extreme, according to more than 50 interviews with current and former secretaries, White House staffers and executive branch officials, who described his Cabinet as a restless nest of ambition, fits-and-starts achievement and power-jockeying under a shadow of unfulfilled promise.
That's a far cry from the vision Obama sketched out in the months leading up to his 2008 election. Back then, he waxed expansive about the Cabinet, promising to rejuvenate the institution as a venue for serious innovation and genuine decision making. "I don't want to have people who just agree with me," he told Time magazine, after reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's classic account of President Abraham Lincoln and his advisers, Team of Rivals. "I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone."
Obama, many of his associates now concede, never really intended to be pushed out of his comfort zone. While he personally recruited stars such as Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, most other picks for his first Cabinet were made by his staff, with less involvement from the president. "[Bill] Clinton spent almost all of his time picking the Cabinet at the expense of the White House staff; Obama made the opposite mistake," says a person close to both presidents.
Five years on, Obama's White House still reflects those priorities. At the top is a stripped-down command cluster modeled on his campaign, ruled by ferocious gatekeepers such as first-term chief of staff Emanuel and the more disciplined man who currently holds the position, Denis McDonough. But Obama also created in the White House an intellectual cloister where he could spitball ideas with academics like Larry Summers or take a few hours, as he did in the middle of the 2012 campaign, to discuss issues like civility in social media with a group of tech titans. The Cabinet, in many cases, fell between the cracks. And Obama, who has a pronounced disdain for traditional Washington institutions, didn't much care.
Who's to say he was wrong? The people closest to the president point out that his approach has won him two elections and helped him cope with a succession of major crises-all while he signed major pieces of legislation into law, including the biggest economic stimulus in American history, financial reform and the health care act that's so associated with his name. "We were drinking out of a fire hose, but all things considered I think we struck the right balance," says Gibbs, his first press secretary.
Yet Obama's unwillingness to empower his Cabinet has not been without consequences. To many I spoke with, it is both a reflection and a cause of the administration's lurching, improvisational character. The decision to muzzle the Cabinet for all these years means the president now has fewer seasoned surrogates to make his case in public. Putting a premium on political savvy over creativity has made it harder to generate new proposals. Limiting the number of new voices in Obama's inner circle has given a cramped, predictable feeling to his White House and increased the pressure on a diminishing cast of indispensable staffers, who are now burning out and breaking down. Never have the strains been more apparent than during the troubled, ill-coordinated rollout of Obamacare this fall.
Reich's friends who have served in Obama's government often whisper about how much more locked up things are today, how Obama chooses "efficiency" over a more collaborative process. "Under Clinton, I fucked up royally and repeatedly, and I was still allowed out there," Reich says. "That wouldn't happen now. The environment is too hostile."