As Domestic Agenda Crumbles, Obama’s National Security Team Is Under Fire

President Obama receives his daily briefing from Susan Rice, his national security advisor, on Aug. 12 in Chilmark, Mass.  (White House Photo by Pete Souza via Flickr)

President Obama receives his daily briefing from Susan Rice, his national security advisor, on Aug. 12 in Chilmark, Mass. (White House Photo by Pete Souza via Flickr)


Second terms for U.S. presidents are tough. One’s domestic political capital quickly burns off after his Election Day mandate is forgotten by political friends and foes. So presidents often become “foreign-policy presidents” in their final years in the Oval Office.

Things were heading in that familiar direction for Barack Obama. But there are signs Obama’s rather unconventional and often turbulent presidency might veer off that path, raising big questions about what Team Obama will accomplish in its second term.

Obama’s domestic agenda is, well, in trouble. “We did fumble the ball on it,” Obama told reporters during a telling press conference on Thursday. Some pundits say the botched Obamacare rollout — unless fixes are put in place fast — could derail his entire second-term domestic agenda.

So, time to look abroad for some legacy fodder, right? Not. So. Fast.

First came Obama’s unconventional handling of the Syria situation, in which he signaled a “red line” had been crossed, moved toward military strikes before deciding to first let Congress vote, and ultimately cut a deal with Moscow and Damascus that left Bashir al-Assad in power.

In off-the-record conversations with Democratic lawmakers, they expressed frustration with Obama and his national security team.

Then came critical reviews and expressions of frustration with the Obama administration from some of Washington’s closest friends in the Middle East.

And this week, House Armed Services Committee members from both parties teed off on the White House national security team and Obama’s hand-picked Pentagon leadership.

Here’s how I reported HASC Ranking Democrat Adam Smith’s comments about the White House on Thursday during a morning talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington:

The HASC ranking member pulled back the curtain that shields the public from Washington’s policy-making, revealing the White House national security staff has virtually no relationships with key lawmakers and aides.

Smith compared the Obama national security team to its predecessor, the George W. Bush administration, saying the latter kept defense lawmakers in the loop at each step of its decision-making process that led to the surge in Iraq.

But the Obama White House national security team “decides what the policy is, then they come tell us,” Smith said.

That means lawmakers are denied the ability to weigh in or raise concerns before a policy is announced, creating tension because the administration merely comes to Capitol Hill demanding Democrats to — at least publicly — “buy in.”
“I get it, they don’t trust us,” Smith said.

Remember, that’s coming from one of the White House’s closest allies on national security and foreign policy issues.

(A White House spokeswoman declined to comment on Smith’s remarks.)

Republican HASC member Duncan Hunter is not an Obama ally on any issue. But he, too, on Thursday sounded off about Team Obama at a separate event sponsored by Defense One. Here’s how my colleague Aaron Mehta and I summed up Hunter’s venting:

The always-candid Hunter blasted both civilian Pentagon and military leaders, saying “DoD doesn’t know what it costs to make soldiers, Marines or sailors.

“It simply doesn’t know,” Hunter said “They either have not done the research or they aren’t being forthcoming with Congress.”

The frustrated Marine Corps veteran expressed concerns over what he sees as a disconnect between DoD and Congress.

There is “an arrogance on the part of DoD and the military leadership,” Hunter said.

Obama is losing congressional Democrats over Obamacare, and now some — along with Pentagon-friendly GOP hawks — seem fed up with his national security aides.

Obama was effusive in his praise of Susan Rice when he defiantly made her his national security advisor. Mending these deteriorating relationships with Congress — a recurring theme of Obama’s presidency — largely falls to Rice. While scholars agree that U.S. presidents possess most Constitutional and statutory powers in this area, Congress can complicate things — even by just publicly slamming a commander in chief’s every decision.

Can Rice ensure her boss scores a few second-term foreign policy and national security victories for his legacy? That largely will be her legacy.

John T. Bennett

John T. Bennett

Bennett is the Editor of Defense News' CongressWatch channel. He has a Masters degree in Global Security Studies from Johns Hopkins University.
John T. Bennett