It’s obvious that either Leon Panetta, Obama’s head of the CIA, or Nancy Pelosi, his party’s speaker of the House, has to go. No administration can tolerate a permanent, public civil war between two such high-ranking officials. Especially when their disagreement stems not from issues of policy, but from matters of veracity and credibility, the battle must end in one of their resignations. You cannot have the head of the nation’s first line of defense against terrorism calling the speaker of the House a liar and being attacked by her in turn.
Obviously, Obama cannot fire Panetta. First of all, he just appointed him. And, second, to cave in to Pelosi would earn him the massive disrespect and disapproval of the very operatives on whom he must depend to keep the nation safe. Already skeptical of his leftist credentials, the analysts of the CIA would regard it as a massive vote of no confidence if their chief were fired for believing in them.
Like Bill Clinton — whose draft-dodging made his relationship with the military problematic — Obama assumes office amid reservations about him by the intelligence community. He has taken pains to reach out to both the uniformed and white-collar intelligence officials to smooth his way and win their trust.
Panetta took over as CIA chief under the cloud of his agency’s distrust of the man who appointed him. Now, he is standing firm for his agency and winning their loyalty and support. Obama cannot pull the rug out from under him without incurring their permanent animosity. Before 9-11, that may have been an acceptable risk. Now, it is not.
But Pelosi is expendable. The job of a Democratic speaker is to pass the program of the Democratic president. Her ability and track record is measured on a scale of effectiveness. If she is ineffective, she’s not up to the job.
There is no way that Nancy Pelosi can be effective while she is engaged in a war of words with the Democratic head of the CIA. House members have a shark’s instinct for blood in the water and know full well that satisfying Pelosi is likely to be an unrewarding occupation. With Rep. Steny Hoyer waiting in the wings, few congressmen would be willing to treat the IOUs from Pelosi they get for casting difficult votes as worth much more than Confederate currency.
Remember that Pelosi won by only 118 to 95 in her election as speaker. Her support was not overwhelming to begin with. She is a movement liberal. Her political antecedents come from the George McGovern wing of the party. She is a leftist-reformer. An insurgent. But Hoyer is a regular Democrat. Representing a district in the Washington suburbs of Maryland, he is almost a civil servant himself. He is no radical. While he can be counted on to pass Obama’s programs like a good Democrat, he is not the kind of guy who will get out in front of the president to upstage or pressure him. He will fit right in, unobtrusively backing the president. (Full disclosure: He’s a former client. Very former.)
Above all, Obama cannot allow the distraction and disruption of a feud between speaker and CIA head to sow the image of an administration at war with itself. The speaker is the hired help. She exists to serve her president. And, right now, he needs this fight like he needs a hole in the head.