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Obamaism, not Rahmism

leanrahm.JPG

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

By Ezra Klein  |  March 3, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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Comments

"On health care and torture, Emanuel was wrong, and he lost"

The decision to try KSM in civilian court was about torture? How do you figure that?

Emanuel's batting 1000 in my book.

Posted by: bgmma50 | March 3, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Obamaism sounds a lot like a reasonable effort to "change the way Washington works." I hope he gets some credit for it.

Posted by: jduptonma | March 3, 2010 11:37 AM | Report abuse

"Emanuel has long been skeptical of the political merits of a robust liberalism,"

This is a serious problem for a Democratic administration, particularly one like Obama's that saw itself as having transformative aspirations.

Posted by: adamiani | March 3, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Froomkin's profile of Our Favorite Bush Democrat is head and shoulders above any puff piece published in The New Racist

Posted by: johninflorida | March 3, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

Media obsession with Rahm is like 'drug' - they are doing it because it sells....

How stupid the whole coverage has been? Which President legacy we ever talk in terms of Chief of Staff? Was Bush a failure because of his Chief of Staff?

I think Media (including Ezra) needs to come to senses. This is all 'saloon parlor gossipy type' media reporting; hardly useful for common Americans who are struggling on various fronts.

Rahm works for Obama and Obama is hold responsible. That is it and everything else is 'cr*p'.

Posted by: umesh409 | March 3, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Obamaism also means arresting people for filing amicus briefs. I assume they also reserve the power to assassinate such people.

Posted by: DeliciousPundit | March 3, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

My only issues with Rahm involve his impolitic behavior toward liberal activists. Even if he thinks liberal activists are behaving stupidly, he needs to stuff it in a drawer and try to pretend these people matter. Not make a beeline to Joe Lieberman's office to give away the stuff that matters to them. Whether or not doing so was the right decision, it had an, in my view, unnecessary political cost.

Why intentionally antagonize people from whom you then turn around and ask for help? There may be a benefit I can't see, but at least one cost is that it makes you look juvenile. More importantly, it discourages people from participating in the political process, which, in my view, is the exact opposite of what Obama campaigned on and runs counter to the long-term interests of liberals, such as myself.

Nonetheless, I totally agree--it's Obama's White House. He apparently prefers his Chief of Staff to look juvenile, and he doesn't mind turning people away from the political process. He certainly wouldn't be the first.

Posted by: slag | March 3, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

"...it was the best kind of profile: the kind that confirmed everything I already believed."

Look, I get that you're joking here, but honestly, this is the type of humor that, coming from a news professional, is always in poor taste. To readers who place our trust your opinion and especially your analytic ability, the idea that this sort of behavior is funny hits a little too close to home given the normal methods of information consumption in DC.

Posted by: finale | March 3, 2010 2:39 PM | Report abuse

I don't think the battle over KSM is over. Holder initially prevailed on civilian trials, but then everyone in New York chickened out, and at least according to the Jane Mayer article in the New Yorker they haven't found a venue yet. I also seem to recall seeing an article that Obama was reconsidering a military tribunal.

Posted by: randrewm | March 3, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

"To readers who place our trust your opinion and especially your analytic ability, the idea that this sort of behavior is funny hits a little too close to home given the normal methods of information consumption in DC."

I don't know. I thought it was funny. And I like when people overtly recognize their biases because I see it as an indication of honesty and self-awareness. Those who try to ignore or hide their biases either don't know that they have them or don't know that I know that they have them. Neither one of those latter options inspires trust, in my opinion.

Posted by: slag | March 3, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

"The Obama administration doesn't reflect Rahmism or Axelrodism or Gibbsism. It's Obamaism."

Yes but none of them are the "new kind of politics" that Candidate Obama promised!

Posted by: msa_intp | March 3, 2010 5:05 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

I swear, you are among the few who still has his head on straight.

This idea of focusing on aides is mind boggling. Nobody blames Harry Reid's chief of staff or other aides for anything. I can give Obama a pass on legislative results since congress is technically (constitutionally) an independent, coequal branch. But anything that comes out of the White House is squarely Obama's responsibility.

Posted by: lagnappe | March 3, 2010 5:45 PM | Report abuse

"I don't know. I thought it was funny. And I like when people overtly recognize their biases because I see it as an indication of honesty and self-awareness. Those who try to ignore or hide their biases either don't know that they have them or don't know that I know that they have them. Neither one of those latter options inspires trust, in my opinion."

You have a point, and diff'rent strokes, etc. I read the joke by Mr. Klein as being too similar to those politicos who seem to honestly believe in informational relativism- that it's ok to have a bias and enforce it as truth, because that's what everyone does anyway, welcome to washington, etc.

Posted by: finale | March 4, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

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