Bad Diagnoses

The recent 'Rahm' stories offer plenty of prescriptions. Are we sure Obama is sick?

As my colleague Holly Yeager noted the other day, the spate of Rahm Emanuel stories that have lately been clogging up the Internet draw some startlingly different conclusions about the cartoonishly profane White House chief of staff. In the space of two weeks last month, there were three much-discussed items—Ed Luce’s Financial Times story, followed by a long blog post by Steve Clemons at The Washington Note and a Daily Beast column by Leslie Gelb—that placed Emanuel among a group of White House insiders who are dragging down the presidency. More recently, a “contrarian narrative”—pushed by columnist Dana Milbank in The Washington Post, and in a front-page story by Jason Horwitz in the same paper—has emerged: the problem is not that President Obama listens to Emanuel too much, it’s that he doesn’t listen to him enough. Predictably, the backlash immediately sparked a backlash: see, for example, Dan Froomkin’s Huffington Post column haranguing his former WaPo colleagues and dubbing Emanuel “Obama’s Chief of Sabotage.”

But for all the disagreement about Emanuel’s sins or virtues, these pieces share a common assumption: that something has gone badly awry within the Obama administration. Luce asks: “What went wrong?” Clemons declares: “Obama is not winning. He is failing.” Gelb refers offhandedly to “bad judgments on priorities, practicalities, and steadiness.” Milbank asserts in passing that “Obama’s first year fell apart.” Horwitz uses more measured language—he is ostensibly writing a news story, after all—to describe the administration’s “current bind.” But Froomkin takes the rhetoric to new heights, referring to “the wreckage of what was once such a promising presidency.”

I have no sources within Washington, so readers looking for an account of how influential Emanuel really is should look elsewhere. (I’d recommend Noam Scheiber’s profile in The New Republic, the best—and, hopefully, the last—in the recent slew of Rahm-ologies.) And I’m not going to wade into the debate over whether Emanuel’s policy views and his approach to politics are good for the country, or for the Democratic Party. But the conclusion that Obama has been a failure at implementing his agenda, and that there is anything about his political standing that requires special explanation, is misguided, incomplete, and premature, whatever the inside-the-Beltway chatter may be.

In terms of policy accomplishments, there’s a general consensus, even among the stories mentioned here, that Obama got off to a good start: the president “got 11 substantive bills on this desk before the August recess,” Milbank writes. What’s happened since that point, of course, is that health care consumed the agenda. While there’s room for disagreement about Obama’s performance on many important issues—detainee policy, the war in Afghanistan, the Arab-Israeli peace process, and financial reform among them—the “failure” narrative is all about health care.

But does that make any sense? National health care reform, which has been an unrealized goal of the Democratic Party for more than half a century, was a centerpiece of Obama’s campaign platform. It was unsurprising that he made it a priority as president, and it is unsurprising that it has proved awfully difficult to pass. But, during Obama’s first year in office, Democrats came closer to overhauling health care than they ever have before. If not for the events in Massachusetts, they would have done so already, despite lockstep GOP opposition. And while Scott Brown’s election created some real uncertainty, judging by the stories of the past few days, it’s again looking more likely than not that comprehensive reform will pass.

Even if it doesn’t, the reform campaign—judged strictly as an effort to achieve a political goal—was a risk well worth taking, and one that very nearly paid off. And if it does pass, it will be—again, judged strictly as an effort to achieve a political goal—a historic triumph. (Meanwhile, as health care has overwhelmed the legislative calendar and eaten up the news hole, Obama has continued to advance his policies on other fronts.)

How about Obama’s political standing? After their sky-high beginnings, Obama’s approval ratings went into a long, steady decline before stabilizing right around 50 percent. Health care probably had something to do with this—while there’s support for its component parts, the total package hadn’t polled well, and it’s possible that the association between Obama and reform made both the president and the plan less popular.

But the bigger causes are structural: the country is highly polarized, so about half the country is predisposed, in the long run, not to approve of the president. (By the same token, Congressional Democrats, now enjoying unsustainably large majorities, are due for a drubbing.) And the economy—a powerful determinant of political outcomes, and one that that president has limited means to address—still stinks. In that context, Obama’s standing with the public, much like his record on implementing policy, is far from perfect, but it’s not bad. It’s also—again, like his policy record—entirely within the range of what a rational observer would expect.

Now, these journalists didn’t manufacture their complaints out of whole cloth. No doubt there are plenty of folks in Congress, in the Cabinet, and on the Internet who are angry at Obama and/or his advisors, in part because their interests don’t always align. Further, the Obama presidency has not lived up—because no presidency could—to the sometimes rapturous acclaim and out-of-control expectations that surrounded the Obama candidacy (encouraged, to be sure, by the campaign). And, of course, the Obama presidency has—as all presidencies do—made tactical, strategic, and policy-oriented missteps; in some cases, internal dysfunction surely played a role. All of that is, appropriately, fodder for the press.

But most of these Rahm stories—whether they fall into the “blame staff” or “blame Obama” camps—read like explanations in search of a problem, or, to quote from David Broder’s terrific WaPo column today, like “petty Washington gossip” being channeled by “journalists who fancy themselves great campaign strategists.” The country is in bad shape. All things considered, the president—whatever the merits of his staff—is doing okay.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.