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Defending Rahm for all the wrong reasons

smileyrahm.JPG

My colleague Jason Horowitz has an article today quoting a lot of different Democrats (both named and unnamed) who are defending Rahm Emanuel's strategic judgment. The problem, they say, is not that Rahm has exerted too much influence on the Obama administration, but too little (this is the case Dana Milbank made in a recent column).

The argument goes like this: "Emanuel is a force of political reason within the White House and could have helped the administration avoid its current bind if the president had heeded his advice on some of the most sensitive subjects of the year: health-care reform, jobs and trying alleged terrorists in civilian courts." That advice would've gone like this: Do less on health care, move to jobs earlier, don't try to close Guantanamo.

Though I'm an avowed defender of Rahm Emanuel's performance as chief of staff, I'd be calling for his head if he were calling these shots. This critique only makes sense if you think about the presidency in terms of poll numbers rather than problems. Health-care reform, for instance, is inches from passage. If not for Scott Brown's unexpected victory in Massachusetts, it would have passed weeks ago. We'd be on our way to implementing a bill that would cover 30 million Americans, completely reform the insurance market, make a serious start on cost control, end the days when sick people couldn't get health insurance, and create a new coverage infrastructure that could absorb the flood of refugees from the dying employer-based system. That deserves some weight in this discussion.

Whether health-care reform passes, what's undeniably clear is that it could have passed. When you make a bet, some risk is acceptable. In fact, it's inevitable. As any poker player knows, the fact that you lost a hand doesn't mean you bet wrong. And so it is for health-care reform. If this bill had suffered the fate of Clinton's bill and never even made it to the floor, you could argue that it was a strategic miscalculation from the start. But we're talking about historic legislation that has, for the first time ever, passed both houses of Congress. That's not a strategic miscalculation. It's a tactical triumph. And insofar as Emanuel has, at times, been opposed to persevering on this effort, he's been wrong.

As for jobs, it's evidence of what a strange place Washington is that people think the country's economic anxiety could be alleviated if the president and his party just said the word "jobs" more often. The jobs issue is trouble for the Democrats because unemployment is nearly in the double digits. Unless they have a way to bring it down -- and, as of yet, they've not been willing to consider any secondary legislation of that size, or any pressure on the Federal Reserve -- the jobs issue will continue being a problem for Democrats. Only in Washington could anyone possibly believe that unemployment is properly a question of political communication rather than people not receiving a paycheck.

I'll stay out of the Guantanamo debate because I haven't been following it. But on the areas that I know well, the defense of Rahm favored by some Washington Democrats is evidence of everything that is wrong with Washington: It prizes politics rather than policy, and seems interested in the problems Americans are facing only insofar as those problems show up in the president's poll numbers. In this telling, the measure of Obama's success is not how much good he does for the country but how much good he does for congressional reelection campaigns. No wonder people hate this city.

Photo credit: Alex Brandon/AP.

By Ezra Klein  |  March 2, 2010; 9:54 AM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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Comments

I hate this city. I can't wait to leave. It's sad.

Posted by: senorgibson | March 2, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

Great post Ezra.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | March 2, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

The claim that Obama should have listened to Rahm is not only bad for what matters -- policies that affect people's lives -- but also politics. The approach of "moderation" on Gitmo and health care have undermined Obama, leading to a substantial enthusiasm gap. If Democrats today were fired up and ready to go, the chances of holding Congress would be far higher.

Furthermore, the whole article is unseemly. Someone is leaking like crazy to protect Rahm's reputation, which only undermines Obama's. Whoever is doing this should be ashamed of themselves. It's disloyal, it's damaging, and it's wrong.

Posted by: mainer2 | March 2, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Was Rahm pushing for a second stimulus or that the President should have pushed for a larger initial stimulus? Is there any reason to believe that Congress would have been willing to pass a second stimulus or a larger initial stimulus if the President pushed harder? I've never seen evidence of either. And furthermore, are we really sure unemployment would fundamentally different with more/other stimulus?

If more stimulus brought us down to eight or nine percent, wouldn't Republicans still be pounding Dems for it being "all the way at 9%! And those are all temporary jobs anyway!"?

I'm not saying the stimulus was perfect, far from it. But I'm not sure that a slight change in tactics would change the response from the opposition. Scaled back HCR would still be a "government takeover." Larger stimulus, even if it made things better than they are now, would be a "debt increasing boondoggle that hasn't worked" and they'd still find a number of programs that sound funny if you say them in a weird voice or money that wasn't paid out in a matter of hours after the bill passed.

And like most/all Presidents, the high polls immediately following an election would slowly sink back to Earth. Liberals would find things they didn't like and conservatives would start gearing up for the mid-terms.

This isn't to say there haven't been mistakes, or things I've disagreed with, but the President's not so far from historical precedent that we can assume that changing one thing or another would completely alter his position now.

Posted by: MosBen | March 2, 2010 10:21 AM | Report abuse

Another thing: The article compliments Rahm for helping Senator Snowe remove $100 billion from the stimulus bill. In other words, Rahm deserves credit for weakening the economic recovery, which surely was horrid policy and a terrible political move.

Posted by: mainer2 | March 2, 2010 10:22 AM | Report abuse

Ezra,

As a native of DC, I agree 100% with your conclusion. "But on the areas that I know well, the defense of Rahm favored by some Washington Democrats is evidence of everything that is wrong with Washington: It prizes politics rather than policy, and seems interested in the problems Americans are facing only insofar as those problems show up in the president's poll numbers. In this telling, the measure of Obama's success is not how much good he does for the country but how much good he does for congressional reelection campaigns." Truer words have never been spoken.

As a side issue, I take issue with your implicit blaming Martha Coakley for health care reform not being enacted right now. Scott Brown's win may have been the stick that broke the camel's back, but it certainly is not the main reason health care reform hasn't been done. Health care reform should have been completely done last year. Democratic pussy-footing all last year -- from Max Baucus playing footsie with the Gang of Six to the Congressional Progressive Caucus being self-righteous about the public option and capping the employer tax exclusion to the President not laying down the line -- prevented this from happening. That health care reform wasn't done last year is a good reason the candidate I voted for 1.5 months ago lost.

Posted by: moronjim | March 2, 2010 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Rahm is one of the ones responsible for cutting Romer's stimulus proposal from $1.2 trillion to $900b and then he cut it even further. The Democrats are in this mess because of Rahm wanting too small a stimulus.

The White House also shares a huge portion of blame for Mass, they're the ones who backed Coakley and then ignored the race. My guess is Rahm had a huge hand in that as well.

Posted by: endaround | March 2, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

BS HE IS A FN A HOLE !!!

Posted by: yourmomscalling | March 2, 2010 10:32 AM | Report abuse

"The jobs issue is trouble for the Democrats because unemployment is nearly in the double digits. Unless they have a way to bring it down -- and, as of yet, they've not been willing to consider any secondary legislation of that size, or any pressure on the Federal Reserve -- the jobs issue will continue being a problem for Democrats."

Yes. Yes it will.

And as others have mentioned, pretending Rahm would have acted more boldly on jobs if healthcare hadn't been an issue is to completely disregard the reality. Passage of the stimulus wasn't that long ago. Our memories are not that short.

Posted by: slag | March 2, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Wonderful, wonderful post. Where can I get my "Ezra Klein 2020" button?

Posted by: jwellington1 | March 2, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Obama doesn't act like a president who is willing to fight for anything. He doesn't act like a president who believes in anything. While great on the campaign trail, and running dog and pony shows that expose the repugs, he is simply unable to translate this into action as president.

I don't like Rahm Emanuel at all, but I think Obama would be a lousy president no matter who he chief of staff was. And I voted for Obama. But the man I voted for is not the man who moved into the White House and Emanuel has nothing to do with that.

Posted by: solsticebelle | March 2, 2010 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Bravo, Ezra. It is about time for some sense in the WP.

Posted by: sveik | March 2, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

Bravo, Ezra. It is about time for some sense in the WP.

Posted by: sveik | March 2, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Could and should the White House have worked on a "jobs" bill (tax credits, etc) earlier, maybe in tandem with the stimulus, or shortly after the stimulus?

Posted by: jduptonma | March 2, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Great post. It also shows how out of touch many reporters are in DC and how they too are guilty of covering politics much more closely than policy. Its too bad David Gregory and Chuck Todd, for example, don't have as good a grasp of the issues as Ezra does.

Posted by: saratogian | March 2, 2010 10:58 AM | Report abuse

Right on Ezra! I could not believe that article... It was like a knife in the gut. Great post.

Posted by: Snakeheader | March 2, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

I have to post a comment because your post is so truly awesome and you completely read my mind.

The one thing I would change is this idea that DC sucks. It doesn't. Actually, I love DC and would move back in a heartbeat. It's clean, full of interesting people, has a decent food scene, and it's easy to get around. Some of your former city officials are up here in my city kicking butt and taking names. Let's not knock DC the city.

The problem, more specifically, is the Beltway Democratic Party elite. Many are generally more interested in their careers than in what their careers should accomplish for the country. They are hopelessly out of touch with the emerging center-left Democratic Party constituency. Many of them think that the late 1990s were some kind of glory era for Democratic Party politics. I've often wondered how this group got so out of touch. Sometimes I think it's socio-economics. It's hard to get your start in DC unless you come from money. So the insiders tend to be richer and less connected to the cause, perhaps.

But I really think this is critically important not just for the Dems but for the country. From a political standpoint, many of these people are just totally clueless about how to lead a movement. Politics has to be about something more than just politics. It has to be about consequences and about policy. That is the way the world works. So it's how DC needs to work too.

Again, awesome post.

Posted by: phillycomment | March 2, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

Rahm Emnuel has his own mafia on the Hill and also in the Press.

It's time to replace him with someone more seasoned in senatorial leadership and with some seasons of experience.

No POUS can be a prisoner of his CoS.
The real problem with Obama is, as I said recently, he still doesn't seem to understand and/or value the political bully pulpit at his disposal.

Posted by: hariknaidu | March 2, 2010 11:11 AM | Report abuse

This is required reading for every media insider in DC (Chris "I love Jim Bunning" Matthews is a good place to start). Since most in the MSM have some form of ADD/ADHD, you might just clip the last two sentences and staple a copy to their foreheads.

The Rahm saga is Exhibit A for the disaffected, from the Tea Partiers on the right to the Dump Blanche Lincoln crowd on the left. The system is corrupt. The self-healing is underway and it's gonna be ugly.

Posted by: CallMeLiberal | March 2, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

So Rahm is trying to tack Obama to the right according to Horowitz and Ezra is arguing that this is wrong? It seems like Rahm is trying to think about long-term power while Obama (and Ezra) are advocating for just doing everything THEY want no matter what anyone else thinks and no matter the reprecusions.

"When you make a bet, some risk is acceptable. In fact, it's inevitable. As any poker player knows, the fact that you lost a hand doesn't mean you bet wrong."

What happens when you lose the game?

Posted by: Holla26 | March 2, 2010 11:22 AM | Report abuse

We need more than just other Jews in the media defending this Jew in the Whitehouse

Why that's ethnocentric at best!!!

I'm sure the Irishs defend Joe Biden
I'm sure the Italians defend that guy over CIA
I'm the sure Latinos defend Bill Richardson
I'm sure the Blacks WILL STOP defending Barack Obama....

Since he insist on defending the Jews and not the black nominees and apointees

Obama should had put an Irish in as COS...They are more closer to the white vote and what the people are feeling.

See in the Black community we like ERIC HOLDER better than we do President Obama

The Latinos are laughing and saying "Amigos why do you always spit on one another, we want to join you but you blacks are always fighting one another...We don't like fighting family"

BLACKS WILL PUT THEIR SUPPORT BEHIND ERIC HOLDER DECISION AS ATTORNEY GENERAL AND NOT THAT OF RAHM EMANUEL

EZRA KLIEN ANOTHER JEW DEFENDING ANOTHER JEW....HOW SURPRISING

GIVE THE COS JOB TO AN IRISH-AMERICAN. BEST SHOT! FIGHT FIRE WITH WATER

GET RID OF RAHM
GET RID OF LIEBERMAN
GET RID OF NELSON
GET RID OF SUMMERS
GET RID OF GEITHNER

Posted by: dove369 | March 2, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

I disagree Belle. I think Rahm has a lot to do with it. Look at Senator Obama. He was tough, pushy when necessary, and he stood on his principals, even when he had to do so alone. Rahm is a polititian. Always has been. I think The President wanted a political mind to balance his policy mind. Problem is, President Obama is both a political and policy mind. Rahm tipped the balance to politics over policy. Year one is over, and year two is off to a pretty good start. Lets see how it goes before we cast too harsh a judgment.

Posted by: elijah24 | March 2, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

*It seems like Rahm is trying to think about long-term power *

Rahm is trying to think about his *own* long term power.

It's said that good policy makes for good politics. Rahm is a fine example that a sole focus on what's good politics not only makes for bad policy, but for bad politics, as well.

Posted by: constans | March 2, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Horowitz's article had Rahm's fingerprints all over it. Looks like he's trying to frame the debate over his legacy. hmmm

Posted by: trblmkr1 | March 2, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

AMEN!!!!!!!

For Rahm and defenders, maintaining power is all that matters. They couldn't care less whether they actually accomplish anything of substance.

Posted by: uh_huhh | March 2, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

You're exactly right Ezra. Most in Washington (and especially the press) have become so cynical and politically driven that when a public official actually does what he or she thinks is best for the country, they don't allow themselves to believe it -- they come to the conclusion that the official in question must just be moronic in his self-interested political judgment. i.e. "Obama spent a year on health reform, and look where it got his poll numbers -- hahaha, what a buffoon! He probably thought he'd be at 70% by now!!!" Charlie Cook's recent interview is symptomatic of this mindset gone to the extreme, in which he called trying to do health care "a huge miscalculation" -- not if you care about getting health reform done, Charlie! Ridiculous -- and Cook is someone I usually respect greatly.

Posted by: vvf2 | March 2, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Careful Ezra, lest you be "froomkinized"!

Posted by: trblmkr1 | March 2, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I posted this on the more recent Rahm post, but just in case people looking at this one disagree w/ me I will post it here:

I kinda have a problem with Ezra's points on Rahm (who I approve of, btw). I think he is treating this very idealistically, where policy should be elevated over politics entirely. But that world doesn't exist at all. Bill Clinton achieved a tremendous amount in his time in office, but so much was politically driven. In fact, the conventional wisdom now is he should have been more politically driven - get welfare reform done first, then nab health care. I think you need to balance political realities with policy aims. If this were just about listening to policy guys, as Ezra suggests, I feel as if we would have a much different bill. Perhaps Wyden-Bennett (doesn't David Cutler like the idea, Ezra? I'm not sure). Perhaps we would have something that was more radical - as Ezra constantly and rightly notes, this is not a radical bill. And on another issue, stimulus, we would have had a larger bill; everyone knows it was pared down because people thought certain numbers ($800 bn, $1 trillion, etc.) were too shocking.

On another issue, fiscal policy: I wonder if Ezra would agree with the statement that "the budget is a political document." Students who take courses on budgeting are well acquainted with it, and it shows up in various academic articles (just to take one: http://www.escholarship.org/uc/item/8x98f0xs). Again, politics matters.

Now, I respect Ezra enough to think he knows all of this. And maybe I am not reading him closely enough. But it just seems as if there is an overemphasis on policy, which is good in the abstract but doesn't work in practice. And to think that Obama is listening to his policy people more, I am skeptical. Sure, they play a role, and my sense is that Obama is a guy who wants to know what the best policy is. But once that is determined, it is filtered through the political aides like Ax and Rahm, leading to things like a stimulus that was too small for some, a health care bill too conservative for some, and a foreign policy too Bush-lite for some.

Posted by: gocowboys | March 2, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

.............

While defeat is a motherless child....

Rahm is the mother of the Massachusetts Senate loss.

That should have never happened.

(PERIOD)

So all this stuff about the president listening to the
wrong people is a bad move by Rahm. It makes the
president look weaker than he is already being
portrayed.

I would not be happy if I were Obama.

..........

Posted by: printthis | March 2, 2010 12:43 PM | Report abuse

Once again Mr Klein demonstrates that he is one of the most astute observers in Washington. What if our leaders really focused on results for real priorities for an entire session of Congress, the latest polls be damned? Single-mindedly, unapologetically, unflinchingly.

Posted by: fjwas | March 2, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

It seems likely that this entire "the President should have listenmed to Rahm" narrative is being orchestrated by Rahm himself. In reaction to the harping by progressives, Rahm is mounting a counter-offensive of his own. The man's arrogance is exceeded only by his ambition.

This counter-offensive serves the President poorly and for that reason, he needs to go.

Will Horowitz and Milbank reveal who instigated their stories?

Posted by: dcinsider1 | March 2, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

You’re right Ezra.

You know that little voice in your head that whispers to you that in spite of all the sound and fury, what really matters is truth, decency and trying to help others. That little voice is still right.

Stick to your guns, you are making a difference.

Posted by: BHeffernan1 | March 2, 2010 1:12 PM | Report abuse

EZRA IS NOT RIGHT....

ONLY PEOPLE WHO LISTEN TO HIM IS THOSE AT MSNBC....

Posted by: dove369 | March 2, 2010 1:42 PM | Report abuse

It's funny/sad that the back and forth on that whole debate has pretty much disregarded any policy considerations. How can any self-respecting progressive look at Emanuel's approaches to those list of issues and not be disappointed, troubled and calling for his head?

Posted by: tonyharris | March 2, 2010 1:52 PM | Report abuse

This is one of the weakest essays that I've ever read. Rhyme nor reason supports your central premise. You use just one issue, Gitmo, to support it with just hints that if Democrats in Congress had just never considered a public option in HCR deliberations, all might have gone differently. There is absolutely nothing to support this - quite the contrary.

Since you don't make any real effort to support your title thesis - a reasonable inference is that your purpose is just rabble rousing with a tinge of race-baiting. From reading the submitted comments your efforts appear to have been successful. Certainly the sofa warrior class has taken the bait as has the demi-racist, government hating, water-boarding wing of the republican party.

Our small, all volunteer military will fight on in furtherance of American corporate interests that are not even related to American public interest, in Iraq for China and Israel, in Afghanistan for India and in Iran for Israel. None of these beneficiary countries have expended any of their blood or wealth in support of these American efforts - but they and certain "American" companies derive all of the benefits. Now, more than ever, American corporate interests are entirely distinct from American public interests. Rahm is the corporate man.

Your issues should have at least included the central question of why financial and health care reform were take out of order. Instead you have appealed to the blood lust of the sofa warriors and racists.

You have done a great disservice to your country by writing this piece of dribble. But even that fails to distinguish you as trashing America is as common today as it is vulgar.

Posted by: tm13 | March 2, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, you couldnt be more wrong on the healthcare bill. It will bankrupt the country. Entitlements are slowly strangling us and adding another program to the medicare/medicaid cost shift will only exacerbate the problem. The government cannot mandate or fund unlimited anything, no matter how may elected representatives vote for it.

Posted by: bruce18 | March 2, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

This is not about Rahm or anyone else. It is not about policies versus politics. What we see seems to be blindness by all politicos.

What we face today is a culmination of sorts. This severe unemployment was gradually accomplished through changes in industry technology from robots to computer applications. This is true all over the industrial world. The problem the Democrats and the Republicans have in common is how to provide for all the unemployed as their number increases with population and more technology in lieu of people at their desks or workplaces. This trend to structured unemployment was made clear to me by my information technology professor way back in 1972. He was right.

Not everybody can go to junior college and be transformed from a routine procedure type worker making $25 or more with added benefits per hour tightening bolts on car wheels, or as a draftsman in an architectural office displaced by the computer, to an experienced worker in another growing field of endeavor.

Washington D.C. and all its politicos must address this structured unemployment that neither tax cuts or social programs will cure, or its corrosiveness will turn this country into something not one of us wants to see.

Posted by: HarGru | March 2, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

I'll say it again (as my post to the other article). Obama came in promising major change (as that article put it
it "historically far-reaching"), this was not merely from Bush to some one else, or from Republican to Democrat but change from politics as usual. Emanuel's suggestions smack of politics as usual. Initiate legislation that can pass by not upsetting the status quo and just tweak the edges. Obama is (as from the other article) about principles rather than politics. To heed Emanuel on major issues would go against principle (again, would the public noitce or care?).

Posted by: notamullethead | March 2, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

"...implementing a bill that would cover 30 million Americans, completely reform the insurance market."

Completely reform? YOu have got to be kidding me. Even the most ardent Obamacare cheerleaders don't make such ridiculous statements about this bill "completely" reforming the insurance market.

Posted by: Bob65 | March 2, 2010 10:10 PM | Report abuse

Amen.

Washington has become largely politics and little policy. The Rahm Emanuel reporting is symptomatic of the problem.

"O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!"

-"To a Louse" by Robert Burns

Posted by: cassandra9 | March 3, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

We'd be on our way to implementing a bill that would cover 30 million Americans, completely reform the insurance market, make a serious start on cost control, end the days when sick people couldn't get health insurance, and create a new coverage infrastructure that could absorb the flood of refugees from the dying employer-based system. That deserves some weight in this discussion.
******************************************************************
No it doesn't. Polls are the way Americans tell their employee (Obama), what to do. Obama only has one job, to do as he is told by the majority. Nothing else matters.

Posted by: websterr1 | March 8, 2010 7:44 PM | Report abuse

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