Rahm Emanuel: Bug or Feature?

The chief of staff can thank the president for the attention he’s getting.

Rahm Emanuel. Click image to expand.
Rahm Emanuel

The blizzard of ‘10 in Washington might refer to February’s record snowfall—or it might be a reference to the number of stories about White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. They’ve been everywhere you look lately. This Sunday, he’ll be on the cover of the New York Times magazine. Next Sunday, he will be a part of a 60 Minutes story, along with his brothers Zeke and Ari.

It’s not good for an administration when staffers are in the news this much. The Washington press corps covers the machinations and not the message. It also creates gossip and confusion in the White House, where staffers sometimes are the last to know what’s going on in the office down the hall.

Why now? Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., was elected. If Democrats hadn’t lost their supermajority in the Senate, health care reform would probably have passed by now, and there would be fewer Obama-is-in-trouble stories and less concern with finding the root cause of the current stall.

But in another sense, these stories were inevitable—what’s surprising is that they didn’t come sooner. Obama chose Emanuel for many of the qualities that are now causing attention. His administration has internal tension by design. Emanuel was always going to be at the center of the inevitable crackups that would occur between Obama’s promises to usher in a new kind of politics and the messier necessities of governing. At times, Emanuel’s job description could be: Head of Doing Things Obama Ran Against.

The president came to town preaching the ideology of pragmatism. This required Emanuel’s deal-cutting skill and his willingness to put aside ideology, as he had when he recruited anti-abortion, pro-gun candidates to help Democrats take back the House. Obama didn’t give up on his pledge to hold health care negotiations in public because Emanuel tricked him into making backroom bargains. He knew he’d have to make those kinds of deals, and he picked someone who could work the inevitably complex relationship with Congress necessary to make progress.

Emanuel’s job requirements also include designing escape hatches for the president, like a Plan B if the current push for health care reform fails. This is nothing more than prudent planning, but it can look like you’re working at cross purposes.

Emanuel was picked not just for knowing how to make deals, but for knowing how to weather the abuse that comes from disappointed liberals. Liberals who are disappointed in Emanuel are, in part, using him as a scapegoat for their disappointment in Obama— just as Obama imagined they might. The good-cop, bad-cop relationship is standard for a president and a chief of staff. It allows the president to stay above the fray.

Yes, but don’t all these stories of Emanuel’s role in decision-making show a White House in dysfunction? Not really. The inside back-and-forth also seems thoroughly normal. It should not be unexpected that there are serious disagreements in a White House. A president’s job is to make hard decisions. By definition, that means people close to you disagree. In its early days, the George W. Bush White House was often held up as a model of collegiality and efficiency. Yet as Ron Suskind first reported in 2002, then-Chief of Staff Andy Card lamented that every day he had to adjudicate a constant tussle between Karl Rove and Karen Hughes. It eventually wore Hughes down and she went back to Austin.

The other striking aspect of this story is that, as Noam Scheiber points out, “Emanuel manages to lose an awful lot of internal battles for someone with an ostensible vise grip on the presidency.” The usual downside of staff stories is that they make the president look disengaged. In the current crop of stories, Obama seems extremely engaged (which also makes it harder to believe that Emanuel is making any deal that Obama doesn’t know about).

These Emanuel stories also are pretty much without drama. There are stories about his dramatic behavior in the past but not from this current White House. Debates were had. Some he won. Some he lost. In the Clinton White House, the president was known for his purple-faced rages. Karl Rove was, at times, a screamer. Given Rahm Emanuel’s reputation, you’d think that after he lost one of these debates, he’d have thrown a chair through the window (and then run out to the front lawn and thrown it back in again).

Still, one of the job requirements of the chief of staff is that he only appear in the news on his own terms. It is unhelpful for Obama that one of the reasons Emanuel is in the news is that he’s identified with his early advice that health care reform should have moved more slowly at the precise moment that Republicans are making this case. It makes Obama look like he screwed up the strategy, and you could imagine a GOP politician turning the president’s chief of staff against him. “The president should have listened to his chief of staff, Mr. Emanuel, when he said we should reform health care in incremental steps,” a senator might lament.

Despite the noise, Emanuel is still in the center of issues like closing Guantanamo Bay and passing health care reform. Late Tuesday, he went to Capitol Hill to meet with congressional leaders to speed the process. It’s another skill Obama relied on when picking Emanuel—the ability to keep his head down in the middle of the Washington circus. He did, after all, work through the Monica Lewinsky scandal during the Clinton presidency. Sure, there’s that Eric Massa story about Emanuel confronting him in the nude in the House gym. But things haven’t gotten that weird in the Obama White House yet.

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