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The Chief

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But, in the end, Obama himself favored letting Baucus negotiate until September. (Though Axelrod stresses that the president was “just as impatient as Rahm was to get moving.”) In fairness, even internal skeptics believed a bipartisan package might be attainable. The problem was that, overlaid on a strategy based on speed and momentum, the extra two months exacted a major cost. As the Baucus talks lingered, the very same steps Emanuel had taken to build momentum began to weigh on the broader effort. “At the end of the day, the rational person in Ohio is thinking, ‘If Pharma’s for the deal, it must be good for Pharma,’” says one administration official.

This, in turn, forced the administration to make a second fateful call: Should it try to defuse the public backlash by turning on some of the industry groups? Or should it stick with Emanuel’s cooptation strategy and press ahead? Obama ultimately decided on a bit of both.

That same month, to the surprise of the leading insurers, the White House suddenly opened up a rhetorical offensive against them. Once again, the decision was defensible on its own terms. It even produced some short-term p.r. gains. Still, when layered onto the existing strategy, the new offensive created real confusion. At the same time the administration was bashing insurers, it sought to preserve deals with drugmakers and hospitals. The new attacks sent mixed signals not just to the interest groups, but also to the public at large.

It’s a rather remarkable testament to Team Obama (not to mention Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) that they managed to shepherd health care through the House and Senate late last year despite these complications. If not for the upset election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts--a development virtually no one inside or outside the White House recognized soon enough to do anything about--Obama would almost certainly have signed the most sweeping domestic policy legislation in a generation by now.

But Brown did win, triggering an agonizing, slow-motion meltdown that has yet to be fully contained. Emanuel himself deserves significant blame for failing to produce a backup plan once Brown seemed likely to win. Instead, chaos reigned in the aftermath of the election. Otherwise levelheaded Democrats, like Barney Frank, suggested reform might be dead. The president himself seemed to hint that the bill would have to be scaled back. It’s possible that no amount of White House intervention could have stanched the frenzy. But, in retrospect, it’s hard to believe there wasn’t an alternative to the post-election leadership vacuum.

Yet, looked at another way, the episode may be the most emphatic vindication of the Emanuel approach one could ever imagine. The fact that Scott Brown is now the forty-first Republican senator is all the proof you need that nothing is certain in politics. In such a world, it’s advisable to finish your business sooner rather than later, and to leave as little to fate as possible. Or, as one administration official summed it up for me: “Everything that happened was confirmation that [Emanuel] was right. It was a high-wire act. Shit happens.”

In February, The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank penned a column defending Emanuel against a rising drumbeat of criticism, including some recent calls for his resignation. The column made several valid points about Emanuel and his value to the president. But it also indulged in caricature. While holding up Emanuel as an all-knowing sage, Milbank dismissed Gibbs as a “hyper-partisan former campaign flack” and Axelrod as a man so “blinded by Obama love” he can't think clearly.

The reaction was immediate and intense--multiple sources told me it had created tension within the White House. It also, in some respects, epitomized the Emanuel dilemma. Contrary to his cut-throat reputation, Emanuel has generally been a team player during his time as chief of staff. He tends to resist cooperation with the dozens of profiles that are written about him. He is quick to defend colleagues from the kvetching of journalists and pundits, and he has thrown himself into major initiatives whose logic he disagrees with. On health care, one administration official told me, “It may not be the thing he wanted to do his whole life. But he put his shoulder to the wheel to get the thing done.” Above all, no one I spoke with for this piece questioned Emanuel’s loyalty to Obama. “I’ve talked to Rahm every day,” says his friend Paul Begala. “In the year and a month, whatever it’s been, I’ve never heard him complain about the president.”

Which raised an intriguing paradox. On the one hand, no one seemed to believe Emanuel had engineered the Milbank piece--even critics conceded that, if nothing else, he was too savvy for such a stunt. Nonetheless, almost all these people believed the Milbank piece was a problem for Emanuel, because less-informed outsiders would assume he was behind it, prompting a cascade of chatter about White House infighting.


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