White House chiefs of staff come and go, arriving with fanfare and departing — usually — in celebration or silence. Only one exception comes to mind. When Don Regan swapped jobs with Ronald Reagan chief of staff James Baker there began an epic battle with the president’s wife which — to no one’s surprise but Don Regan’s — he lost.
Hamilton Jordan played Sancho Panza to Jimmy Carter’s Don Quixote. H.R. Haldeman was Cardinal Richelieu to Richard Nixon’s Louis XIII. But Rahm Emanuel, who has that lean and hungry look, seems to be auditioning for the part of Cassius to Obama’s Caesar.
Rahm Emanuel, famous for declaiming that a crisis should never be allowed to go to waste, is now engaged in an epic battle not only with President Obama’s closest advisers but with the president himself.
White House infighting isn’t unusual, especially when the president’s agenda is failing or he’s in re-election trouble. Obama isn’t yet an endangered species whose extinction is predicted for 2012. But he is at a low ebb, and — if Congress doesn’t accomplish Obama’s nationalization of health care before the March 29 Easter recess — it likely won’t be able to for the remainder of his presidency.
Obama’s health care bill is in real trouble. It may not pass the House because the vote scares Democrats whose November fortunes may be sunk by it, and because of Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) principled stance against abortion funding. Obama’s decision to put Attorney General Holder in charge of the war against terrorists is failing spectacularly, and the reversal of Holder’s decision to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other 9-11 planners in New York City is imminent. And the president’s spending tsunami — linked to the health care “reform” — has Democrats running for cover all across the fruited plain. This is not the mid-term campaign year Democrats were expecting.
With the president’s troubles so numerous and profound, the chief of staff’s job is to run interference for the president, settle squabbles between cabinet members and patch together congressional coalitions to pass at least some face-saving pieces of the president’s agenda.
But Emanuel doesn’t play well with others. Calling fellow White House staffers “f-ing retarded” in a strategy meeting months ago, he apologized for using the “r” word (newly banned by the political correctness police) but not for the insult.
And now, with President Obama sinking to a new low in power and prestige, Emanuel is under attack by other White House staff (probably advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett along with press secretary Robert Gibbs) who are apparently leaking attacks on him.
Instead of fighting back against his peers, Emanuel is mounting a campaign against the president himself.
It began with a January 17 Washington Post story by Dana Milbank which said that liberal activists were calling for Emanuel’s head.
But Emanuel and his congressional pals didn’t take that lying down. A month later, Milbank wrote that Obama’s first year “fell apart in large part because he didn’t follow his chief of staff’s advice on crucial matters. Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter.”
Milbank’s February 21 piece argued that Emanuel was the voice of sanity, opposing the president on closing Gitmo, trying KSM in New York and the rush to health care reform. It attacked Axelrod and Jarrett, saying that they had to be replaced.
Emanuel’s rebellion is unprecedented: no other White House chief of staff has — himself or through surrogates — so attacked his president. Milbank’s chastised Obama, saying he’d been much better off doing what Emanuel said on KSM, Gitmo, and particularly on health care.
A week later, Milbank wrote regarding Obama’s performance at the White House health care summit that, “…the world’s most powerful man too often plays the 98-pound weakling; he gets sand kicked in his face and responds with moot-court zingers. That’s what Mr. Cool did at the White House health-care summit on Thursday.”
Milbank insisted that Emanuel didn’t talk to him about the articles. But his allies wouldn’t be doing this without his consent.
But directly or indirectly (through congressional allies and other surrogates) Emanuel was doing the unthinkable and unprecedented: attacking the president he supposedly serves. No chief of staff has publicly voiced opposition to his president. At most, he’d go on television to confess error, to say that he’d argued against a presidential decision and that events had proven the president wiser than he. But that’s not Emanuel’s style.
After the two Milbank articles, Jason Horowitz followed Milbank’s line on March 2 in the Post, writing that Emanuel is the “voice of reason” in the White House and that Obama is misguided and ill-served by Axelrod and Attorney General Holder. It read, as one wag told me, as if Horowitz was auditioning to ghost-write a book by Emanuel.
Obama’s presidency is unraveling quickly. According to the latest Rasmussen polls, only 25% of Americans think the country is on the right course, the lowest level since Obama’s inauguration. And they have little confidence in the president’s economic policies and spending spree: only 48% believe it’s possible to work hard and escape poverty, down 8 points in a year.
Dwight Eisenhower relied on adviser and speechwriter Bryce Harlow, who Ike called his “meat and potatoes” man. Harlow set the standard for White House advisers, shunning personal publicity. He would probably have slashed his wrists rather than publicly oppose his president. Harlow remained faithful to that ethic for many years, advising Nixon and then resigning quietly when the breach between the White House and Congress was beyond his skill to repair.
Rahm Emanuel is used to fighting to keep his White House jobs. Hillary Clinton tried to get him fired from the Clinton White House for abrasiveness in 1993, but Emanuel refused to leave unless Bill Clinton told him to go. Bill never summoned the courage to face “Rahmbo.” Now, Emanuel is fighting not the First Lady but the president himself, and not gently.
Emanuel’s style reportedly includes sending a dead fish in a box to a late-reporting pollster. In Naftali Bendavid’s book, The Thumpin’: How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution, he recounts how Emanuel, at a dinner celebrating Bill Clinton’s election, talked about a list of pols who had “f—ed us,” taking a knife and shouting “dead” after naming each name.
Rahm Emanuel — who once was offered a scholarship to join the Joffrey Ballet — is a prima donna whose skills at political infighting will keep the Obama White House in disarray for as long as he stays.
Emanuel’s fight to keep his job can only hasten Obama’s decline, enhancing his political weakness and the White House’s disarray. If Emanuel goes, it will hurt Obama because the policies Emanuel argued against will still be pursued headlong to defeat and Emanuel vindicated. And if he stays, Obama will have to rid himself of some of his closest advisers. Let’s hope he stays.