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Obama’s Chief Issue

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Famously, and to a fault, Obama has had a very different modus operandi, both in his campaign and in the White House. Unlike Clinton’s fractious operations, Obama’s have been disciplined, collegial, and tight-knit. Unlike Clinton, with his wide orbit of counselors, Obama has relied on a tight circle, only really trusting and relying on a clutch of adjutants: David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, Valerie Jarrett, and David Plouffe during his run for office, and the same group minus Plouffe since he has been ensconced there.

The sole addition to that list, of course, has been Emanuel—the one senior adviser to penetrate the inner sanctum without ever having chanted “Yes, we can.” His focus and relentlessness have made him an able (if less even-tempered and vastly more profane) substitute for Plouffe. Among Emanuel’s many critics on the left, that comparison will ring hollow, for they see Rahm as having sold out the progressive vision of Obama’s campaign. But Plouffe’s job in 2008 was to devise a strategy to accomplish Obama’s goal: to win. And Emanuel has done the same thing in the White House: help Obama achieve his chosen aims, which, at least on the domestic front, have been to pass landmark pieces of legislation.

When it comes time to replace Emanuel, Obama, being Obama, will be tempted to chose someone with whom he already has established a comfort level, someone inside the administration. And, indeed, among those high on most current tout sheets are deputy national-security adviser Tom Donilon, senior advisers Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse, and legislative-affairs director Phil Schiliro.

All of these cats are tremendously talented, intelligent, and accomplished—and yet Obama, I think, would be wise to avoid elevating any of them. Among the most glaring flaws of the Obama White House has been an acute insularity. This is not a novel observation. It has been a complaint widely voiced by Democrats outside the White House, in politics and business, from the start. The perception is nearly as deleterious as the reality, and it is one that will become essential to dispel after Obama’s party and by extension his White House are (presumably) beaten senseless in November.

What’s needed, then, is a chief of staff who hails from beyond the Obamasphere—complemented by a widening of the circle of those who have the president’s ear. The irrepressible Chris Matthews has floated Mike Bloomberg or Colin Powell for COS. The chances of either accepting the job are roughly as high as its being offered to Anthony Weiner. But Matthews was onto something: the imperative to go big and bold, and to choose someone with the stature and the balls to tell Obama things he doesn’t want to hear. Several names of that kind on the current short lists stand out: outgoing Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, former Virginia governor Mark Warner, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, and, even though he ran the Obama transition, former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta.

In Emanuel, Obama has had a chief of staff who has aided him in being the kind of president he set out to be. But the time is approaching when he will have to recast his conception of the job. Whether that means formulating an Obaman version of triangulation or adopting a more vigorously populist and partisan stance is an open question—one that will depend on how he chooses to resolve the ambiguity that has dogged him for much of the past two years. What’s perfectly clear, though, is that with the GOP holding all the cards on Capitol Hill, Obama will need help in becoming something bigger, and better, than a pragmatic legislator-in-chief. Or else, ’round about January 2013, he may wind up being something rather smaller.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.


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