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The chief of staff of change


The Obama campaign was about poetry. It was the pretty rhetoric of hope and change. The Obama administration has been, to the surprise of many of its supporters, entirely about prose. It's been about the thousands of pages of legal language that tell the government what's changing. And no one represented that shift better than Rahm Emanuel.

Rahm Emanuel is not post-partisan. He is not of the new politics. When Obama asked, in 2004, “do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope,” you imagine that Emanuel shook his head and laughed. Politics is a cynical business. And he understood it. Reveled in it, in fact. Remember that whole fish thing?

And so, it turned out, did Barack Obama. The Cossack worked for the Czar. After a campaign that was all about hope and change and a united America and a different style of politics, Obama looked outside his campaign team and entrusted his new administration to the Washington Democrat considered the most ruthlessly efficient practitioner of the old politics. The time had come to set aside childish things. The ugly slog of change, and not the soaring rhetoric of hope, came to define the administration.

And it was an ugly slog. The stimulus was too small, and got shaved down further in an 11th-hour deal with Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. The health-care bill compromised with the insurance, drug, hospital, small business, big business, doctor, and nurse lobbies -- and then a couple more industries for good measure. Financial regulation, well, even the banks are mostly okay with it.

But there was little precedent for a non-war stimulus of even the size we got, and the Obama administration worked assiduously to accomplish dozens of long-term objectives within the legislation. The health-care bill is going to bring the country from 85 percent coverage to more than 95 percent -- aside from Medicare and Medicaid, no previous expansion of coverage even comes close. Financial regulation was more of a disappointment, but the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a huge step forward. And the president for better or worse, has managed to keep his campaign promises on the two wars, drawing Iraq down and ramping Afghanistan up.

There have been disappointments, too. Civil liberties is probably the biggest. Cap-and-trade looks dead, though the administration is likely to regulate carbon through the EPA. The administration hasn't been able to sustain its popularity amidst the slow economic recovery, and it didn't do nearly enough to push the Federal Reserve to fulfill its mission of promoting full employment.

But all in all, the crisis didn't go to waste. The period of change, however, is over, at least for a while. The next year or two will be defense and implementation. That's not Emanuel's specialty, and so his exit is fitting. But in the end, it may not mean that much. The same president who chose Emanuel and made the decisions that Emanuel carried out will also choose his successor and make the calls that he or she implements. The Cossack may change, but he still works for the Czar.

Photo credit: White House

By Ezra Klein  | October 1, 2010; 11:23 AM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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2 years in, what has changed for the better? That is the Democrat's real problem.

Posted by: Bullsmith1 | October 1, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

The reality is that campaigning is poetry and governing is prose. Obama took campaigning seriously and he equally takes governing seriously and he is a realist about both. I suspect his recent return to campaign poetry will lead to smaller Dem losses than would otherwise have occurred. I also suspect that his perceived seriousness about governing is part of why his job approval ratings have stabilized in the mid to high 40s despite the current economic situation, better approval than that great political poet Ronald Reagan had in the midst of an econonmy that was not as bad.

Posted by: gregspolitics | October 1, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

Wow. Klein gives Linda Lovelace a run for her money.

Posted by: msoja | October 1, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Yes, he does. This is hagiographic drivel. The very unusual timing of this departure, right before midterms, remains to be commented upon. The occasional comments of the president, that Rahm would make a great mayor, that he better hurry up and decide, etc., suggest he was being kicked out the door. What is really behind this? And don't tell me someone would prefer to be a mayor over a nationally important job. Is Emanuel going to be called as a witness in the next episode of Blago? Whatever is behind this, it has not one iota of connection to "poetry and prose."

Posted by: truck1 | October 1, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

You wrote that the administration didn't push the Federal Reserve enough for their mission of full employment.

Isn't the Federal Reserve INDEPENDENT? I don't think that the White House can tell the Federal Reserve to do anything.

Luckily there will be 2 new people on the Federal Reserve board to make it 6 out of the 7 people needed including a Vice Chair Yellen who wants the Federal Reserve to do MORE to promote full employment. Now that she is on board perhaps the Fed will now ACT.

Posted by: maritza1 | October 1, 2010 12:37 PM | Report abuse

If you had any inkling about history, you'd realize how troublesome and polarizing the title of "czar" is and why it shouldn't be used at all in U.S. government. Unless of course you're a fan of czars, their policies, etc. (but that would run counter to the other folks you love, like the crew that brought death and destruction to tens of millions around the globe under the hammer and sickle). So which are JournoListers fans of, the czars or the hammer and sickle?

Posted by: frankensundae | October 1, 2010 12:38 PM | Report abuse

The worst part about the Obama Admin, Emmanuel version, wasn't that they failed to achieve many of their campaign promises; it's that they never even bothered to try.

You didn't mention Obama's failures on gay rights. The loss on DADT was even more poignant because Emmanuel's first public statement in in 2009 was to announce that the Admin wasn't going to touch DADT that year. Now it looks like they may never get to repeal it, and the hopes for changing a policy that 75% of Americans find offensive rests with the courts, not with Obama and the Democrats.

Posted by: AxelDC | October 1, 2010 1:16 PM | Report abuse

This is a good post, I like it Ezra.

Question - agreed that 'defense' of what is achieved so far is all that in the next 2 years; but then not talking about remaining part of the agenda (in particular Energy Reforms) is it acceptance that GOP dominated House will not allow anything in this regard?

I guess, regardless of how 2010 election results, talking about finishing remaining agenda (in other words singing poems about Energy Reforms) can be a good campaign strategy at least. Or is WH too resigned to the fact of 'defense' only play for next 2 years? That will be hard, it will not be easy to enter 2012 with that.

Meaning Obama still needs to talk about what he wants to do - the unfinished agenda like 'fundamentally re-structuring employment to reduce large unemployment and Energy Reforms' - in the next 2 years.

Posted by: umesh409 | October 1, 2010 1:37 PM | Report abuse

AxelDC, repealing DADT was clearly not a top tier priority for the Obama Administration's first two years. I think they understood that they were going to get a couple big pieces of legislation, but that was probably it, so they pushed the stimulus and healthcare reform. Financial reform was a nice bonus, even as weak as it was, but there just wasn't the juice left in Congress to force a repeal of DADT completely. Though it's not good enough on its own, at least the Administration instituted the new rules which were supposed to drastically reduce enforcement.

Bullsmith1, it's not hard to identify things that are better than they were 2 years ago. The problem for Dems is that unemployment is above 9%.

Posted by: MosBen | October 1, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

If Rahm was all about toughness, then why have the negotiating tactics of the administration been so pathetic? Time after time, they give away a lot without getting anything in return. Or, they pre-negotiate the deal -- the health care bill is a great example -- down to what might be considered acceptable, instead of asking for far more at the beginning -- like single payer health care -- and then taking it down from there during negotiations. It seems uncharacteristic for a supposedly street-fighting politician. But then again, perhaps Rahm argued that they should ask for more but was overruled by the president.

Posted by: meander510 | October 1, 2010 2:01 PM | Report abuse

"it didn't do nearly enough to push the Federal Reserve to fulfill its mission of promoting full employment"

Maybe that's because that part of its mission is considered a joke by all but a few Congressmen and maybe Dean Baker.

Posted by: ostap666 | October 1, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Does anyone want to go toe-to-toe with Obama on Constitutional Law? I didn't think so. Obama has always known (but cannot say it) that any civil rights fight MUST be accomplished in the courts. And it is currently doing so. (Witt v. Dept of Air Force and Log Cabin Repubs v US) By year's end, DADT will have to dissolve. Interracial marriage? Loving v. Virgina. School integration? Brown v. Board of Ed. It'll happen in the courts, not the executive or legislative branches.

Posted by: rlstins | October 1, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

> Wow. Klein gives Linda Lovelace a
> run for her money.

Well, I wouldn't be quite so cruel. Mr. Klein here expresses the view of the DC insiders who consider themselves "savvy". As a lonely liberal out in a purple flyover state it appears to me that Emmanuel is on of the most INcompetent Democratic politicians in a long time, and that he has done great damage to the party, to Obama, and to the nation.

But DC insiders don't see it that way. Which makes me wonder if Mr. Klein has been subsumed by the "savvy" or if he is still making his bones to become a member of that club.


Posted by: sphealey | October 2, 2010 9:10 AM | Report abuse

This is the most pathetic observation yet from the Post. There was no change-- saying it won't make it so. The Dem had an historic opportunity capturing Congress almost four years ago and the Presidency almost a couple years ago. And........ nothing but history's biggest pay for play theft of the public treasury ever.

Posted by: Donschott | October 3, 2010 8:25 AM | Report abuse

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