It’s hard for those of us who are not political junkies or DC residents to relate to most official power struggles, but the one involving Rahm Emanuel has been building over the last few weeks to the point that it is getting hard not to notice (aside: for unrelated reasons Rahm has become a Person of Interest to this blog, as will become evident over the next ten days or so).
A brief synopsis for newcomers:
In some ways, the first serious salvo was an article by Edward Luce in the Financial Times, which discussed at length how Obama was unusually dependent on a tight inner circle of four people – Rahm; David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, both senior advisers; and Robert Gibbs – and attributed Obama’s declining fortunes to the fact that this group had been unable to change gears from campaigning to governing:
“Every event is treated like a twist in an election campaign and no one except the inner circle can be trusted to defend the president,” says an exasperated outside adviser.
The Luce piece got less play than it deserved initially, but it appeared to reframe how some viewed what was amiss with Team Obama. Roughly two weeks later, Leslie Gelb argued that Obama needed to shake up his team, in a piece titled “Replace Rahm“.
(Note: one can argue that the first major attack was the Jane Hamsher/Grover Norquist call for Rahm’s resignation in late December, alleging a persistent cover-up of his role at Freddie Mac. I question how much impact this had. The right and left were agog over this teki no teki [short for Japanese "teki no teki wa mikata": enemy of enemy is friend], plus many consider Freddie to be an old hobbyhorse.)
So far, this looked like a typical search for scapegoats and solutions in the face of floundering performance. But then things took a bizarre turn.
A week after the Gelb piece, Dana Milbank of the Washington Post penned a truly vomititious article, “Why Obama needs Rahm at the top,” so fawning, indeed sychophantic that calling it propaganda is too kind. Propaganda is seldom so unctuous. It was simply stunning to see Rahm (or Friends of Rahm working fist in glove) devise with such a one-sided narrative.
But the desperation of the piece was not what made it seem so peculiar. What was remarkable was that it was an open attack on the President, claiming that Rahm had made consistently correct judgment calls (opposing closing Gitmo and sending Kahlid Sheik Mohammed to New York for trial; urging a less ambitious health care reform bill).
And the Rahm image-boosting campaign continued unabated. On March 2, Rahm got a page one story in the WaPo by Jason Horowitz, with the same unflattering-to-Obama story line but some new tidbits: Rahm was also right on jobs, more emphasis on Rahm as the voice of reason, and (after two full pages of hagiography) some snippets of the critics’ case.
David Broder of the Washington Post today decided to call this orchestrated love-fest out today in “The fable of Emanuel the Great“:
In the space of 10 days, thanks in no small part to my own newspaper, the president of the United States has been portrayed as a weakling and a chronic screw-up …This remarkable fiction began unfolding on Feb. 21…
It sounded, for all the world, like the kind of orchestrated leaks that often precede a forced resignation in Washington.
Except that the chief of staff doesn’t usually force the president out…..Maybe the sources on these stories think Obama is the one who should leave.
Here in a few paragraphs is what others high in the White House think is going on:
The underlying problem, in their eyes, is a badly damaged economy that has sunk Obama’s poll numbers and emboldened Republicans to blockade his legislative program.
Emanuel, who left a leadership post in the House to serve his fellow Chicagoan, Obama, has worked loyally for the president and is not suspected personally by his colleagues of inspiring these Post pieces.
But, as one White House staffer said to me, “Rahm likes to win,” and when the losses began to pile up, he probably vented his frustrations to some of his old pals in Congress. It’s clear that some of them are talking to the press…
None of this would rise above the level of petty Washington gossip except that some of Emanuel’s friends are so eager to exonerate him that they are threatening to undermine the president.
The Broder piece led to more speculation that Rahm was on his way out, both on some blogs, and one reader said he heard a mention on ABC radio.
Now I am not a DC expert, nor do I have any particular insights, but let’s reason from the well known character of this crowd. All accounts say they ran a remarkably disciplined campaign, so this apparent disarray looks mighty peculiar. All accounts say the inside group is extremely loyal.
Let me give you a probable outcome and then some speculation.
Unlike Timothy Geithner, another scalp some outsiders would like to collect, Rahm appears to have no vivid, politically unpopular decisions associated with his name (his personal unpopularity is not germane here). Recall the big WSJ reason why they thought Geithner was not at risk, despite widespread public fury with bank-friendly policies: most of the public does not know anything about him. Nor, unlike many top staffers who are forced out, is he the focus of a scandal (despite the Hamsher/Grovquist calls for an investigation). Even those who want him “out” merely want him in a different role.
So, despite the escalating headlines, this is an inside the Beltway drama. Obama’s permanent campaign posture leads his team to treat every problem as solvable through PR. I would think a cold-blooded calculus is that moving Rahm somewhere else does not even register in the heartlands, or if it did, could be seen as showing weakness (or at least that would be the reasoning).
So I don’t see Rahm move/departure as likely given the current facts on the ground.
However, the one fact not adequately incorporated into this calculus is whether Rahm’s own self-promotion damaged his relationship with Obama. I don’t buy for one second the line that Broder was fed, that Rahm was not suspected personally of being behind the Post pieces. Please. That account simply means that the officialdom has closed ranks, regardless of what the actual beliefs are.
For Rahm to call Milbank directly would be unseemly, but the idea that he simply complained vociferously to friends and then three stories (a second Milbank story reiterated some of the messages of his first story) with similar narratives run in less than two weeks is just happenstance? These stories bear all the hallmarks of being plants.
So let’s unpeel this.
The intransigence of the Rahm campaign was obvious BEFORE Broder called it out. These leaks/plants make Obama look bad. Broder was merely calling more attention to the obvious.
What would any NORMAL manager/executive do? If anyone working for me pulled a stunt like that, the minute I got wind of the Milbank piece, I would have the Rahm equivalent before me and rip him new asshole.
There would be NO second Milbank piece, no Horowitz piece. The message would be “if you are on this team, you make sure this NEVER happens again.” If Obama had reamed Rahm, Rahm would most certainly gone to his buddies and told them to cease and desist telling the media about his complaints.
So we are left with two possible conclusions:
1. Obama is an even bigger wuss than I thought (and I already gave him very high marks in the wuss department)
2. Obama is on board with this PR campaign
Assume Rahm the devious SOB sold Obama on this. How does making Obama look bad (by attacking his decisions) advance the ball?
Remember who the audience is: is anyone really following this story that closely besides Beltway types and political junkies (oh, and perhaps most important, journalists who write about politics?) Even though my buddy did catch a snippet on ABC radio, I’m not certain anyone outside the political hothouse is paying much attention.
What decisions that Obama made are attacked in this narrative? Ones that were left leaning. The real subtext here is that the progressives are all wrong, that Obama’s efforts to deliver on campaign promises were all doomed to failure, so he should be given a free pass. The Rahm PR push is a Trojan horse that allows Team Obama to push messages that serve Obama’s need to distance himself from his “change you can believe in” campaign positioning, which is looking more and more like a baldfaced bait and switch. (Note this isn’t quite as tidy as one might like; there is not just the Obama the supposed idealist, which I have trouble swallowing, versus Rahm the realist. There is another subtext to the story, which is neither flattering nor helpful, that of Obama being in a bit of an echo chamber. That could be the messengers adding their own frustrations/observations).
This way, Obama gets to have his cake and eat it too, provided he is willing to live with the short term embarrassment/annoyance of Rahm appearing to criticize him through proxies.
Look at the message:
1. Obama wanted to live up to his campaign promises of closing Gitmo and health care reform
2. Rahm the realist says No! No! not doable, but then falls into line like a good soldier. Rahm devotes his bulldog energies to trying to make the impossible happen. And all the efforts came to naught. So abandoning all those pinko promises is the only possible course of action
So this story looks like/is Rahm defense (which separately has its uses), but look at how much press it gives to the message that Rahm (and possibly Obama) wants to stress: what the progressives want is unreasonable, undoable. Obama tried, failed, we need to move to the center (really the right). Thus this is all part of an awkward but necessary process (from Team Obama’s perspective) of managing the optics of Obama’s left leaning campaign pitch versus the reality of his center-right governing posture.
This Rahm-led salvo could thus be an attack on the progressive demands and simultaneously deflects their criticism of him.
Of course, the proof will be in how this drama plays out. The Broder piece took this tempest in a teapot to a higher level. The next week will reveal a great deal.