Barack Obama is fighting a lot of political wars these days. The most important, of course, is the war over the war in Afghanistan. Then there's the war over health care, and spending, and the environment, and financial regulation, and on and on.
They're all serious and time-consuming. But the war that has become unexpectedly intense in recent days isn't about any particular policy. It's the war over personnel — the president's choices to fill important but not necessarily high-profile jobs in his administration.
Some of Obama's choices have been people with radical pasts — or radical presents. Others are so overtly political that they can't see any line between serving Obama and serving the public. Their presence has made it increasingly difficult for their boss, the president, to present himself as a centrist.
First was Van Jones, the Obama "green jobs" czar who once signed a petition supporting the "9/11 truther" movement; who was a self-professed communist during much of the 1990s; who supported the cop killer Mumia Abu-Jamal; and who accused "white polluters" of "steering poison into the people-of-color communities." Under fire for his extremist views, Jones disappeared in an unusual middle-of-the-night resignation on Sept. 5.
Then there was Yosi Sergant, who, as communications director for the National Endowment for the Arts, crossed an entire football field of ethical lines by using his office, intended to promote the arts in America, to instead enlist artists to work on behalf of specific Obama initiatives. He resigned Sept. 24.
Now comes Kevin Jennings, the gay activist who heads the Education Department's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Jennings founded a group called the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network and has devoted his career to introducing the topic of homosexuality into every American classroom, including elementary schools. Some of his credentials include writing the foreword to a book called "Queering Elementary Education," which includes chapters like "Why Discuss Sexuality in Elementary School?" and "Locating a Place for Gay and Lesbian Themes in Elementary Reading, Writing, and Talking." Jennings worked hard to bring discussions of overtly homosexual topics — and, in some cases, sexual practices — into school curricula.
Nearly two decades ago, a high-school sophomore approached Jennings, then a young teacher, and said he had had an encounter with an older man. Instead of reporting the matter to school authorities, Jennings — by his own account — offered some simple advice: "I hope you used a condom."
Social conservatives are going after Jennings hard. Why is a man with his agenda in charge of safe and drug-free schools? (Jennings has no experience in anti-drug work.) But the attacks on Jennings have awakened Obama's defenders. As they see it, there's a an ugly right-wing vendetta going on, and it's time to stop it.
"After quickly caving on Jones and Sergant — who were hard to defend — will the Obama administration draw the line at Kevin Jennings?" asked the liberal journalist David Corn recently. "Or will it allow the bloodthirsty hound dogs of the right another red-meat triumph?"
Those may be fighting words, but is Jennings any easier to defend than Jones and Sergant? Education Secretary Arne Duncan is strongly in Jennings' corner, but if critics push hard enough, will the administration go all-out on behalf of "Queering Elementary Education"? We'll see.
In comparison with the wars over Afghanistan, health care, etc., the personnel war rages in the blogosphere but has received relatively little attention in mainstream-media outlets. With the topic mostly absent from the papers and the network newscasts, Obama has managed to avoid serious political damage.
"I think the president gets off the hook too easily," says Republican Rep. Steve King, who recently became the first member of Congress to call on Obama to fire Jennings. "We had the case of Van Jones, where he stepped down at about 12:01 on a weekend morning, and the president hasn't uttered a word about it."
Whatever happens in the latest fight, it seems certain there will be more battles in the personnel war. Does anyone believe that Jones, Sergant and Jennings are the only Obama officials about whom truly serious questions can be raised? While Obama's other wars will someday end, this one might last the entire administration.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.