It's a glorious day in New England, and I hope President Obama's vacation improves now that it's stopped pouring. Now that he's got a little down-time, I hope he's thinking hard about his economic and foreign policy team. He's been in office for more than a year and a half, and he's had to wrestle with more than the usual number of alligators. He inherited an American economy in free fall, a lost war in Iraq and a losing war in Afghanistan, a declining U.S. image abroad, a comatose peace process in the Middle East, and assorted challenges in places like Sudan, Somalia, and Colombia.
Given that array of troubles, one would hardly expect him to achieve a perfect record of success after a little more than nineteen months. But having said that, does Obama have any private concerns about the people upon whose advice he's been relying? As the economic recovery effort slows, does he still have the same confidence in people like Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and Ben Bernanke? With the GOP poised to make big gains in November, does he still think advisors like Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod have the fingers on the pulse of the people? As his own approval ratings slip (despite a slight bump up this month), does he think his media team is doing a good job of managing public perceptions?
Then there's foreign and defense policy. With Secretary of Defense Robert Gates contemplating retirement sometime next year, who is waiting in the wings to give him balanced and sage advice on national security matters? After the roller-coaster ride Obama experienced on Middle East issues (the initial demand for a settlement freeze, the Cairo speech, the humiliating climb-down, and now direct talks that hardly anyone thinks will succeed), does he still have faith in his Middle East team? What about Richard Holbrooke and Stephen Bosworth, the high-profile special envoys who were supposed to work their magic in AfPak and North Korea? And has the seemingly endless parade of bad news and the dearth of tangible progress in Afghanistan and Pakistan raised any doubts in his mind about the wisdom of those who encouraged him to escalate there?
I don't expect President Obama to voice any of these concerns (if he has them), and for all I know he still believes that he's got the best and the brightest on his team. But no president makes all the right appointments, and one sign of effective leadership is the ability to reshuffle your team over time. Back when he took office, I wrote that one sign of his effectiveness would his willingness to replace people who weren't performing well, but the only high-profile departures I can think of so far are the resignation of DNI Dennis Blair and Obama's decision for relieve Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal. And Obama took the latter step because McChrystal made some ill-advised remarks to a journalist, not because he had lost confidence in McChrystal's handling of the war itself.
But I'm still wondering if we're on the cusp of a significant reshuffle. It's pretty common for some people to depart after a couple of years anyway, because these jobs are killers and because academics serving in government normally get no more than two years of leave. The midterms are going to be seen as a referendum on Obama's performance to date, and it's not going to be pretty. The Right hates him, the progressive left has lost faith, and the middle is muddled. Obama will have to start looking forward to 2012, and he will want to inject some new blood and new energy into the Executive Branch. And lord knows he needs a prominent win somewhere. But where? And which of his current team can deliver it?