The scandal of loyalty

Jan. 14, 2013 @ 02:00 PM

President Obama hasn't even begun his second term, yet already he has been ensnared by scandal.

Republicans have uncovered a shocking level of wrongdoing in the Oval Office, and I'm afraid what they say is true: The president is brazenly trying to fill his Cabinet with ... people he likes.

Alas, the perfidy doesn't end there. Not only is Obama naming agreeable people to his Cabinet, he is also -- audaciously, flagrantly -- nominating people who ... agree with his policies.

Hello, operator? In Waco, Texas, I'd like the number for a Starr, Kenneth W.

Among the first to blow the whistle on the scandal was Sen. Jeff Sessions. The Alabamian, ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, went on CNN Thursday, immediately after Obama tapped Jacob Lew to be Treasury secretary, to tell Wolf Blitzer why he would oppose confirmation.

"This is another person just very personally close to the president," Sessions protested. Lew should not be confirmed, the senator said, because "the budget that he wrote was condemned by The Washington Post, virtually every major newspaper in the country."

This was unorthodox -- Sessions rarely admits to agreeing with anything he reads in the Post -- but the truth of the statement was undeniable: Lew did write the budget. He was Obama's budget director before becoming his chief of staff; writing the budget was his job.

Sessions had Obama dead right. He is nominating like-minded people to serve in top jobs in his administration.  And this scandal will continue until Obama finally accepts his constitutional obligation to name disagreeable detractors to his Cabinet.

There was a time when nominating trusted advisers to key positions would not have been a scandal. Only three times in the 20th century (and six times before that) did the Senate reject proposed Cabinet officers, according to the Senate historical office. Lifelong judiciary appointments, particularly to the Supreme Court, are often contentious. But, the historical office notes, there is a Senate tradition that "presidents should be allowed a free hand in choosing their closest advisers." 

The last rejected Cabinet nominee, John Tower, was denied confirmation as defense secretary after accusations of alcohol abuse and womanizing. Ideology is sometimes a factor (only eight of 50 Democrats voted to confirm John Ashcroft as attorney general in 2001), but it is novel to oppose a Cabinet nominee because the president shares his views. Perhaps this should be called the Lew Rule.

Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., applied the Lew Rule when he told Politico that the choice was "controversial" because "I just think there are economic policies in this administration that haven't been well received, and Jack Lew is in the middle of that." Politico also reported that Republicans were skeptical of Lew because he "irked" Senate Republican leaders during budget negotiations.

It's not just Lew who is up against the Lew Rule. Conservatives are grumbling that Eric Holder, a friend of the president, is planning to remain as attorney general, and that White House official John Brennan has been tapped to run the CIA. Also, many Republicans are furious about the nomination of Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator, to be defense secretary, because they don't like his foreign-policy views. But Hagel's views are quite similar to those of the man who nominated him -- and that man just won a second presidential term.

To the victor no longer go the spoils, or even, under the Lew Rule, the right to be advised by people who are ideologically simpatico. The Wall Street Journal editorial page protests that Obama is "assembling a team of personal and ideological loyalists whose jobs will be less to offer independent advice than to advance and implement his agenda for a larger, more redistributionist government." (Never mind that eight years earlier the Journal editorialists blasted George W. Bush's first Treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, for being "an unguided missile who didn't agree with the president's agenda."

My Post colleague Jennifer Rubin, similarly, notes that Obama is nominating "confidants who are like-minded, disinclined to question the president or rebut his (often erroneous) thinking."

As a matter of management, I agree with Rubin. I've argued before that Obama has too many yes men in the White House, and stocking his Cabinet with them will make his presidency more insular. Installing loyalists, such as Bush did with his personal lawyer, Alberto Gonzales, at the Justice Department, has been problematic.

But that's Obama's prerogative. He won the election. The only scandal is denying him the right to choose his own advisers.

Dana Milbank's email address is danamilbank@washpost.com.

Washington Post Writers Group