Obamaism, not Rahmism
I'm getting a bit tired of talking about Rahm Emanuel, but save for the image of Emanuel's uncommonly prominent quadriceps, I liked Noam Scheiber's profile of the chief of staff. In fact, it was the best kind of profile: the kind that confirmed everything I already believed. According to Scheiber, Emanuel is influential in crafting the White House's legislative and political strategy and frequently overruled in its policy discussions. For instance:
But, while Emanuel has long been skeptical of the political merits of a robust liberalism, the problem with the broader ideological critique is that it’s at odds with some of his behavior. As early as the transition, according to several administration officials, Emanuel was adamant that reform of the financial sector proceed immediately. He insisted it simply wasn’t politically viable to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into the banks without showing voters that they wouldn’t have to ante up all over again a few years hence. Geithner objected that fast-tracking reform would only create more uncertainty and could paralyze the financial system. And there were legitimate considerations on both sides. But, suffice it to say, no one out to coddle the banks would have taken Emanuel’s position.
Perhaps more to the point, unlike Cheney and Rove, Emanuel manages to lose an awful lot of internal battles for someone with an ostensible vise grip on the presidency. In the end, the financial overhaul plans did slide by a few months. Emanuel also famously disagreed with Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to prosecute September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court, brooding that it would alienate South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a potential Republican ally. He had reservations about the size of the buildup in Afghanistan, which he worried could turn into a military (and therefore political) quagmire. On health care, Emanuel was one of several senior White House aides who were skeptical of pushing a comprehensive bill last year. Emanuel didn’t even entirely win on economic personnel. He favored sending Summers back to Treasury, until the president hit it off with Geithner and offered him the top job.
I think Emanuel was right about financial reform, but even there, the technocrats arguing that they didn't have the bandwidth to do financial regulation that fast and they couldn't risk getting it wrong prevailed. On health care and torture, Emanuel was wrong, and he lost. As for strategy, he's generally won. But the big question was always what happened in the middle of the health-care reform process. Letting the Gang of Six spend months dithering was a sharp break from the White House's speed-obsessed, deadline-happy strategy until that point. But according to Scheiber, this one gets blamed on Obama:
In July, the White House faced a key decision. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, probably the most important of the five committees considering health care, had spent months negotiating with his Republican counterpart, Chuck Grassley, with little to show for it. Emanuel was getting antsy. He gathered his top aides and pressed for a way to hurry the process along. The Senate labor committee had produced its own health care bill. Perhaps, Emanuel wondered, Majority Leader Harry Reid could bypass Baucus and bring it to the floor. Or maybe Baucus could just stop bargaining with Grassley and let Reid move a more partisan version of his bill.
But, in the end, Obama himself favored letting Baucus negotiate until September.
And that gets to an important point: The Obama administration doesn't reflect Rahmism or Axelrodism or Gibbsism. It's Obamaism. Presidents need good advice, of course, but on the mega issues we're talking about, the tradeoffs are fairly clear. You could replace Emanuel with another chief of staff and if Obama still choose to go for large legislative initiatives but doesn't crack the heads necessary to keep the process moving fast or decides that Republicans might really cooperate this time, the outcome will be no different. People are, of course, a lot more comfortable blaming staffers, because staffers can be changed and no one wants to countenance the fact that the president himself doesn't agree with them.
Photo credit: Ron Edmonds/AP
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