Many of Obama's Longstanding Advisers Moving On

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WASHINGTON -- When President Obama offered a tongue-in-cheek lament last week that he was "getting kind of lonely in this big house," he was referring to his two daughters, who he said were less eager to hang out with their dad as they grew older.

But Mr. Obama might just as well have been talking about the fraternity of middle-aged political advisers who have been at his side since before the 2008 campaign and who are finally moving on. Exhausted and eager for new careers, they nevertheless plan to create an ad hoc support group for the boss they are leaving behind.

"It's something we've thought about a lot," said David Axelrod, one of Mr. Obama's most trusted political aides, who returned to the Obama fold to advise on the re-election campaign and is now off to start an institute for politics at the University of Chicago. "Presidents need to have people with longstanding relationships around them," he said, "because the instinct most people have with the president is to be deferential to a fault."

For the first time since Mr. Obama became president, none of his Big Three political counselors-- Mr. Axelrod, David Plouffe, and Robert Gibbs -- will be working in the White House. Now they are in the top rank of Obama alumni, a status that confers benefits of its own.

Mr. Obama still has trusted aides around him, including Valerie Jarrett, a family friend from Chicago; Denis R. McDonough, a veteran of 2008, who is moving up to chief of staff; and Alyssa Mastromonaco and Pete Rouse, two of his longest-serving staffers. "We're strategically spaced out," said Benjamin J. Rhodes, who wrote foreign-policy speeches in 2008 and is a deputy national security adviser.

But reaching some of his oldest and closest confidants will now require a phone call, rather than simply a knock on their West Wing office doors. And that is where Anita Decker Breckenridge comes in.

Ms. Decker Breckenridge, 34, sits a few steps outside the Oval Office and is a master of the Obama Rolodex. She ran his downstate Illinois office when he was in the United States Senate. Her only moment in the limelight came when the White House confirmed that she, like Warren Buffett's secretary, paid a higher tax rate in 2011 than her boss.

That year, Mr. Obama asked Ms. Decker Breckenridge to be his personal aide, a position that doubles as his gatekeeper. She met Mr. Obama nearly a decade ago and knows instinctively whom he does, and does not, want to hear from.

"Loyalty and trust mean everything," she said in a weekend interview. "He is someone who has always valued long and old friendships."

And she can find any of his old friends on short notice, particularly in the late-night hours when he likes to talk on the telephone.

"We know the deal when he needs us and when he asks us to get involved," said Mr. Gibbs, his first White House press secretary. "And that is, 'Yes, sir.' "

For all the chatter about whether the president socializes enough in Washington, friends know that he has always been something of a loner. And yet he does not always like to be alone.

During long rides on Air Force One, including his solitary flights to and from Hawaii over the holidays, he was busy rounding up players for one of his favorite pastimes: a hand of spades.

His most frequent partners are Marvin Nicholson, the trip director; Pete Souza, the chief White House photographer; and Jay Carney, the press secretary. All three are remaining in their positions, eliminating the need for Mr. Obama to find new tablemates.

Though much of the president's political inner circle has dispersed, they are bound together by the latest iteration of the Obama campaign organization: Organizing for Action.

Jim Messina, who managed the president's re-election bid, is chairman of the group, which includes Mr. Gibbs and Mr. Plouffe, who managed the 2008 campaign.

Not clear yet is whether Mr. Messina will hold weekly dinners at which the alumni can dispense advice to those inside the White House. Mr. Axelrod had dinners, featuring pizza and Thai food, when he was senior political adviser from 2009 to 2011.

Mr. Plouffe, has been in the White House since 2011, is leaving next week to return to the private sector, where he has been a consultant and a public speaker. Even with the bruising battles over fiscal policy, gun control and immigration ahead, Mr. Plouffe said he did not entertain the idea of sticking around.

"Getting fresh voices is good," he said.

Reducing a president's reliance on insiders can have unpredictable consequences for a second term, both good and bad, according to the presidential historian Michael Beschloss.

Dwight D. Eisenhower flourished after Sherman Adams, his overly protective chief of staff, left in 1958. But Ronald Reagan stumbled after his trusted chief of staff, James A. Baker, was replaced by Donald Regan, a Wall Street banker whom he barely knew.

To the extent that Mr. Obama's advisers worry about such things, their concern is having people who are willing to tell the president when they think he is wrong. Even those who have known him a long time, his aides acknowledge, sometimes hesitate to do that.

"Will it be a great strategic and political loss without Axe and Plouffe? I hope not," said Dan Pfeiffer, the communications director, who is also a veteran of 2008 and plans to stay on. "But will the nature and character of this place change? That's probably true."

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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