Published August 04, 2009
WASHINGTON -- In his first six months as president, Barack Obama has not flinched at cutting people loose.
The message -- you're outta here -- comes through loud and clear, though typically not face-to-face from Obama himself. In that regard, he's not like real estate mogul Donald Trump who told contestants on his reality TV show: "You're fired."
Those who have made a swift exit include Afghan war commander Gen. David McKiernan, White House Military Office Director Louis Caldera, and -- in a maneuver stretching all the way to Detroit -- General Motors Corp. CEO Rick Wagoner.
Obama was accused by some of not being tough enough during last year's presidential campaign and this year's health care debate, but his list of "formers" keeps growing.
The latest casualty was Gerald Walpin, the inspector general of the Corporation for National and Community Service.
Walpin was driving to a judicial conference in upstate New York last month when a White House lawyer called to tell him he was out.
Within 24 hours, his e-mail account had been shut down and his office keys deactivated.
GM's Wagoner, who survived years of jostling and intrigue in the struggling auto industry, was ushered into a Treasury Department office one Friday this spring and told to "step aside" or there would be no more federal bailout money for GM. By Monday, he was gone.
Days later, Gates told a Pentagon news conference that McKiernan was being replaced because the military needed "new thinking and new approaches" in Afghanistan. Asked if the general's military career was over, Gates said: "Probably."
Caldera made his exit after taking responsibility for the Air Force One flyover of the Statue of Liberty this spring that left panicked New Yorkers fearing another terror attack. He says he stepped down voluntarily. But his chewing-out by White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina was loud enough to be heard through the closed doors to Emanuel's office, according to West Wing aides who overheard the ruckus.
In most of these cases, Obama's fingerprints have been light. He tossed laurels at some of those headed out the door.
"Obama fires people in a way that makes it quite unclear whether he actually did the firing," said Paul Light, a New York University expert on White House organization. "He is not Donald Trump. Someone else calls 'em in and says 'you're fired."'
Trump himself -- who's showcased his skills at executing brutally direct firings on NBC's TV show "The Apprentice" -- gives Obama high marks
The president also has been lucky that most of those who've departed have gone without a fuss.
Wagoner, for example, issued this statement after word leaked out about his sacking: "On Friday I was in Washington for a meeting with administration officials. In the course of that meeting, they requested that I 'step aside' as CEO of GM, and so I have."
Obama left it to GM to announce that Wagoner was out, and allowed that, "This is not meant as a condemnation of Mr. Wagoner, who has devoted his life to this company."
In McKiernan's case, it was Gates who gave the general the news that he was being sacked, and Gates who announced it at a Pentagon news conference.
The White House issued a statement saying that Obama "agreed with the recommendation," adding that the move "in no way diminishes the president's deep respect for Gen. McKiernan and his decades of public service."
At his retirement ceremony last month, McKiernan declared he was "dismayed, disappointed, more than a little embarrassed" by his firing. But he also said no one should offer "any condolences about recent events."
Gates himself conceded last month that he "could have framed it better" when he announced McKiernan's ouster.
Caldera, for his part, announced his resignation in a letter that said the controversy over the New York flyover "has made it impossible for me to effectively lead the White House Military Office."
This after the White House made it clear that the president was furious about the mix-up, and Obama himself publicly vowed it would not happen again. The White House also made public a report stating that Caldera "did not offer a coherent explanation" for failing to notify higher-ups about the planned flyover.
Contrast that with Obama's unmistakable vote of confidence in his treasury secretary when rumors began to swirl in March that Timothy Geithner's job was in jeopardy. Obama said that if Geithner offered to resign, the answer would be, "Sorry buddy, you've still got the job." And five months later, he still does.
They don't always go quietly.
Walpin, the former inspector general who was appointed by President George W. Bush, contends he got the boot because he issued a report that found misuse of federal grants by a nonprofit education group led by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who is an Obama supporter and former National Basketball Association star.
Obama, for his part, initially said he had fired Walpin because he had lost confidence in the inspector general. When senators pressed for a fuller explanation, the White House didn't hesitate to play hardball. The counsel's office issued a letter stating that Walpin, 77, had been "confused, disoriented, unable to answer questions and exhibited other behavior" that led the board of the National Service corporation "to question his capacity to serve."
Walpin has taken his case to conservative TV talk shows -- going so far as to take an on-air senility test to prove his mind is sound. Now two Republican senators are asking for a congressional hearing into whether the firing was appropriate.