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The Chief

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It’s not hard to see how this could wear on a man. At one point, when speaking to a source close to Emanuel, I referred to him as Obama’s “first chief of staff,” then corrected myself and allowed that he could turn out to be the only chief of staff. The source affected a kind of gallows-humor tone and assured me Emanuel would not be the only one. I began to understand where the various Rahm-is-leaving rumors come from.

True to form, Emanuel refused to speak to me on the record. But, in early March, I asked Axelrod the question I would have put to him: Has the president’s goal of promoting transparency, civility, and accountability worked at cross-purposes with his chief of staff’s strategy for hustling the agenda through Congress? “Look, there are things the president insisted on that wouldn’t have been at the top of Rahm’s list,” Axelrod told me. “The kinds of things the president felt strongly about as a way of keeping faith with his fundamental belief that we have to change the way we do business in this town. It wasn’t that Rahm was negative on that, but he would not have made them the first thing on his list. 

In any case, Axelrod continued, it’s hard to believe these pledges rank very high among Emanuel’s many burdens. “Look, it’s a tough time to govern. We inherited multiple crises. And a very sour economy. And that creates political problems in and of itself. Governing is very, very tough,” he said.

There is considerable truth to this. On the other hand, the enormity of the challenges Barack Obama faces, and the ambitiousness of his program, mean he has almost no margin for error. Indeed, Emanuel--the grizzled, battle-hardened Washington insider--was brought into the Obama White House for precisely this reason, because Obama was shrewd enough to recognize the chasm between campaigning and governing, and that what works in one domain can be debilitating in the other. Put simply, Emanuel is the chief of staff most presidents turn to when they realize their first chief of staff has failed them. To hire Rahm is to skip right to Leon Panetta without first enduring Mack McLarty.

But what we’re discovering is that Obama wasn’t prepared to give up on his campaign ideals so quickly. Deep down, he didn’t necessarily want a hard-nosed insider to execute his agenda; maybe he just wanted to want such a person. For all of his flaws, Rahm Emanuel was supposed to be the man who helped Barack Obama do things the easy way rather than learn lessons the hard way. But, sometimes, deciding to go the easy way can be the hardest thing of all.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic.


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