Keep Rahm in the White House

February 24th, 2010

By Tom Carter

I’ve wondered for quite a while what was going on inside the White House — how do they manage the place, who has real influence, who does the President listen to?  The first indication I saw of disarray and poor management was the way the health care reform effort was handled.  From the beginning, the White House simply turned it over to Congress and told them, in effect, “get ‘er done!”  Other important parts of President Obama’s agenda have been handled in essentially the same way.

As might be expected now that things have started coming apart, politicians and pundits alike are sharpening their knives, picking their favorite sacrificial lambs in the White House.  Two articles by Leslie Gelb, here and here, and a counter-argument from Dana Milbank in a column in The Washington Post are good examples of significantly different points of view.

The President and the White House staff exercised little leadership, including the essential act of bringing the hammer down when things weren’t going well.  I didn’t think this would work from the beginning, given that Congress is fractured across many fault lines, most notably the chasm between the House and the Senate.  Instead of leading his Party, which dominates both houses of Congress, the President has reveled in being the President, becoming seriously overexposed in the process.

Gelb and others believe the lack of leadership from and competent management in the White House is the fault of Rahm Emanuel, the President’s Chief of Staff.  They believe that Emanuel is mainly responsible and that he should be fired or at least moved to a position that would involve nothing more than being a political advisor.  Other White House staffers, particularly Obama’s Chicago political cronies, should be fired or have their jobs redefined.

Milbank, apparently with benefit of a knowledgeable inside source (not Emanuel himself), believes that Emanuel is the only one of the crowd who should stay in his job.  If this version of reality is to be believed, Emanuel opposed virtually all of the bad decisions made during the Administration’s first year but was outmaneuvered by the Chicago crowd plus a few others.  David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, and Robert Gibbs are picked as the main culprits.

Having read a number of news reports and pundits’ columns on the inner workings of the White House, my guess would be that they should keep Emanuel as Chief of Staff and send some of the inner circle home.  It seems there needs to be more than a few people Obama actually listens to, and key jobs should be filled with people who really know how Washington works and how to get things done.

There’s also a key point that many seem to want to avoid — Obama’s personal responsibility for the failures of his first year.  Blame can always be fairly placed on staffs, and sometimes changes are needed.  But in the final analysis, the President is responsible for everything his Administration does or fails to do.  That includes, from the get-go, selecting a senior staff that can get the job done.  Obama, with his almost complete lack of leadership and executive management experience, simply didn’t do it very well.

A frustrated Casey Stengel once famously said to his poorly-performing New York Mets, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”  In the White House today, the one who can play the game is Rahm Emanuel.  That’s right, Rahmbo — the hard-nosed, profane, butt-kicking jerk who actually knows how to make things happen.  The President apparently needs to listen to him more and give him more leash to do what he can do.

Seven years after Casey’s famous complaint, the Mets won the World Series for the first time, which proves that anything is possible.  However, President Obama doesn’t have seven years to get his act together.  The Democratic Party, of which he is the leader, is likely to get a drubbing in about eight months.  Two years after that, Obama himself could get skewered.  Time’s A Wastin’.

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7 Responses to “Keep Rahm in the White House”

  1. Lisa |

    Tom, I also have spent some time wondering what is going on in the Obama administration. Certainly it begins with the leadership or lack thereof at the top. Without a true executive at the top it doesn’t matter how many personnel changes are made, there will never be a clear vision or direction on any issue. I can speak authoritatively on that. However, from my vantage point outside the administration I am only privy to what I see and hear. A good campaign team does not make a good White House team. Every time Gibbs opens his mouth, I wince and do not believe he represents the president well. Additionally, the campaign team’s presence keeps Obama in a campaign mode. I believe one of the reasons he is forever blaming George Bush is due to the fact that he is still in campaign mode and George Bush his opponent. President Obama the great campaigner does not make a great president. I hope one thing the American public learns from this is that these are 2 distinctly different jobs, and that yes, executive experience is a prerequisite to be president of the United States of America. Turning to Rahm Emanuel, I’ve heard/read that he has to go through Valerie Jarrett to get to the president and that they do not see eye to eye on critical issues. I get the sensing that his hands are tied for the most part and that is why we do not hear much from him. Then there is Desiree Rogers in her glamorous gown socializing at the state dinner as unprecedented security breaches are occurring resulting in 3 uninvited guests entering the dinner. I imagine Osama Bin Laden enjoyed that one. In the end, Chicago friends in Chicago do not do well as Chicago friends in the White House but I imagine Obama will continue to blame Bush.

  2. Tom |

    I’ve also read that Emanuel’s direct access to the President is limited. There’s no way to know how true that is, of course, but if true it’s completely disfunctional. If I were Emanuel, I think I’d give Obama an ultimatum (gently, of course) — if you aren’t going to let me do my job, than I’m of no use to you here.

    Regardless of what one thinks of Obama, it would benefit the entire country if the White House were more professionally managed. Based on Emanuel’s record, I think he could do that well. But I don’t have much confidence that he’s going to be able to displace people like Axelrod, Jarrett, and Gibbs.

  3. Lisa |

    I suspect Rahm Emanuel will be gone by summer and someone more to Valerie Jarrett’s liking will be put in his place. The other Chicagoans will stay in their current jobs or close by to continue Barack Obama’s campaign.

  4. Tom |

    I think you’re right, unfortunately. The last thing the country needs right now is a disfunctional White House and a poorly managed government.

  5. Brian Bagent |

    Tom, I’d have to disagree with that last. The more back-stabbing and in-fighting there is within the government, the less time they have to focus on “helping” us.

    Personally, I think Emanuel is a thug. And to think that democrats used to be put out by John Sununu.

  6. Tom |

    Brian, I might agree except for one thing — just because the government is confused and disfunctional doesn’t mean they’ll have less time to “help” us. They’ll just “help” us less effectively than they would otherwise. The reality is that government is firmly in bed with us and is going to stay there, regardless of who is in power. We can’t even chew off an arm to escape….

    Many political operatives could be called “thugs” because that’s in the nature of what they do, I guess. If I were president (God forbid!) I’d want someone like Rahm running the White House for me. He might be a thug, but he’d be my thug!

  7. Terri |

    Well stated Tom!

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