Lessons in Rahmology

The arc of a who's-up, who's-down story

The Washington Post gives White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel the page-one attention that befits this big personality with a big job. And today’s story comes with a nice twist, positing an emerging “contrarian narrative” in which the current Obama administration messes on jobs, healthcare, and other important policy issues could have been avoided, if only Emanuel had been heeded.

It is a view propounded by lawmakers and early supporters of President Obama who are frustrated because they think the administration has gone for the perfect at the expense of the plausible. They believe Emanuel, the town’s leading purveyor of four-letter words, a former Israeli army volunteer and a product of a famously argumentative family, was not aggressive enough in trying to persuade a singularly self-assured president and a coterie of true-believer advisers that “change you can believe in” is best pursued through accomplishments you can pass.

We’re all for contrarian narratives, and this story takes the time to explore its theme, quoting members of Congress, administration officials and others close to the president’s inner circle. This isn’t just a parlor game. Who’s up and who’s down in this crowd, and who knows how to get things done, really matters when it comes to forging policy, shaping public opinion, and getting Congress to act.

All this big attention serves to somehow make the story official, as only the Post can when it comes to Washington news. (Note to self: Is that still true?) But close watchers of the West Wing know that the paper hasn’t exactly set the agenda on this one.

It’s interesting to watch how story lines get kicked around here in Our Town. The current round of Rahmology started nearly a month ago with a February 4 story by an ex-colleague, Ed Luce, at the Financial Times, that placed the blame for recent White House woes on an administration team that is “geared for campaigning rather than governing.”

In dozens of interviews with his closest allies and friends in Washington – most of them given unattributably in order to protect their access to the Oval Office – each observes that the president draws on the advice of a very tight circle. The inner core consists of just four people – Rahm Emanuel, the pugnacious chief of staff; David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, his senior advisers; and Robert Gibbs, his communications chief.

Two, Mr Emanuel and Mr Axelrod, have box-like offices within spitting distance of the Oval Office. The president, who is the first to keep a BlackBerry, rarely holds a meeting, including on national security, without some or all of them present.

With the exception of Mr Emanuel, who was a senior Democrat in the House of Representatives, all were an integral part of Mr Obama’s brilliantly managed campaign. Apart from Mr Gibbs, who is from Alabama, all are Chicagoans – like the president. And barring Richard Nixon’s White House, few can think of an administration that has been so dominated by such a small inner circle.

The FT piece wraps up by noting that some Obama supporters “say he should find a new chief of staff.”

So, the fuse is lit.

The story didn’t make a big splash, but it bounced around a bit on the blogosphere.

Steve Clemons called it a “granularly informed insider account” and wondered why “some of the big aggregators out there — Mike Allen at Politico and ABC’s The Note among others — didn’t give Luce’s juicy and lengthy essay any love.”

But in the too regularly vapid chatter about DC’s political scene, serious critiques of the internal game around Obama not only deserve review on their own merits but have to be read — because Obama is not winning. He is failing and people need to consider “why”.

Clemons wrote about the “core Chicago Team” and suggested the president send Emanuel “back to the House in a senior role,” make Valerie Jarrett “an important Ambassador, and bring in a diverse “Team B.”

Leslie Gelb, the very definition of the Washington establishment, noticed it too, and, in a Daily Beast piece entitled “Replace Rahm,” said Obama should make Emanuel a senior political adviser. (He also thinks Larry Summers, director of the White House’s National Economic Council, should be replaced by Paul Volcker.)

And the Post’s own Dana Milbank riffed on the FT story on February 21, calling for love not for Luce’s piece, but for the chief of staff.

Clearly, “Rahmbo” has no shortage of enemies in this town, and with Obama’s approval rating dipping below 50 percent, they have ammunition. But sacking Emanuel is the last thing the president should do.

Today’s Post rather solipsistically refers to itself about the whole thing:

But the Rahm-knows-better-than-the-president notion, increasingly spread by his allies and articulated in a Washington Post column by Dana Milbank last month, is, regardless of its relation to reality, creating more tension for the chief of staff inside the White House and drawing more scrutiny from outside.

National Journal also tries to join the what’s-wrong-at-the-White-House mix this week, but it requires an expensive subscription, and relies a lot on what Gelb wrote, plus a bunch of talking heads, so you can skip that one.

This Rahmology arc is surely not finished yet. That’s okay. This isn’t the social secretary we’re talking about.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.