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Obama aides predict few Cabinet changes, more travel

The president's inner circle is likely to remain largely intact, despite prominent Democrats calling for new faces.

December 27, 2010|By Peter Nicholas, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama talks with National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon last month.
President Obama talks with National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon last… (Tim Sloan, AFP/Getty Images )

Reporting from Washington — A major shakeup in President Obama's Cabinet won't happen in the new year, as the White House settles in for a reelection campaign and a political realignment in which Republicans control the House of Representatives, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Sunday.

After a tenure marked by sluggish economic growth and historic legislative victories, Obama is under pressure from voices within the Democratic Party to upend his team for the second half of the term. Prominent Democrats have called on Obama to broaden his inner circle and bring in people better positioned to negotiate on equal terms with emboldened House and Senate Republicans.

But Gibbs, speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," said: "I don't expect, quite honestly, big changes. I think we've had a very capable and good Cabinet that has helped move the president's agenda forward."

Much of the turnover in Obama's White House has already played out. He has a new chief of staff, a new national security advisor and a new chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors.

Another position will open up next week when Obama loses his National Economic Council director, Lawrence H. Summers, who is returning to Harvard University.

Summers was a divisive figure in the administration. Though considered a brilliant economist, he was something of a professional skeptic, peppering colleagues with questions that, in some instances, delayed implementation of policies meant to boost the economy, according to people familiar with his approach.

With the economy in crisis, some Obama administration officials are hoping the next director will be more willing to take risks when it comes to creating jobs.

Gibbs said Obama could name a successor to Summers by the middle of next month. Candidates include Roger Altman, a former deputy Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration and founder of the investment banking firm Evercore Partners; Richard Levin, president of Yale University; and Gene Sperling, an advisor to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner and another veteran of the Clinton White House.

One change to expect next year involves Obama's travel. White House officials say he will make more trips outside Washington, part of an effort to escape the presidential "bubble."

Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to the president, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Obama no longer wanted to spend so much time ensconced in the White House.

Obama may ramp up his travels in 2011, but he has hardly been homebound. He made about a dozen trips to the politically important swing state of Ohio in 2009 and 2010. In his first 11 months in office, he set a presidential record by visiting 20 different countries.

In a three-week stretch soon after taking office, Obama visited three continents.

What White House aides dislike, though, is the image of Obama hunkered down in the Oval Office negotiating deals with lawmakers in private. There were many of those moments when Obama was negotiating a healthcare overhaul.

Heading into the 2012 campaign, White House advisors would rather have Obama on the road more, talking to independent voters whom they need to coax back into the Democratic fold.

In another matter, Gibbs suggested that the U.S. prison at the Guantanamo Bay military base in Cuba wasn't likely to close soon. After taking office in January 2009, Obama pledged to close the prison within a year.

"I think it's probably going to be a while before that prison closes," Gibbs said.

Asked when it would be shut down, Gibbs said Republican cooperation was essential.

He said Republicans should listen to military leaders who have cautioned that Al Qaeda uses Guantanamo as a recruiting tool.

During his presidential run, Obama suggested that closing the prison was something he could do unilaterally, without Republican cooperation.

Gibbs, asked why Republicans are now part of the equation, said, "Well, obviously, there are prohibitions legislatively on the transfer of some of the prisoners that are there into some parts of this country."

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