Obama’s Chief Issue

Illustration by Andy Friedman

Rahm Emanuel’s preferred nickname for the nation’s capital is “Fucknutsville,” and it’s difficult to imagine that the events of last week did anything but reinforce his belief in the aptness of that appellation. I’m referring, of course, to the cyclonic swirl of speculation in Washington about Emanuel’s future occasioned by the announcement by Chicago’s mayor, Richard M. Daley, that he would be abdicating City Hall. Within minutes—literally—the political class and cable-news commentariat had (a) concluded definitively that Emanuel would quit the White House and attempt to claim Daley’s throne; (b) started bandying the names of possible successors as Barack Obama’s chief of staff; and (c) commenced the eulogization of Emanuel’s tenure, with one self-appointed guardian of lefty purity deeming him a “cancer on the Democratic Party.”

But even the purest variety of fucknuttery isn’t necessarily baseless, and with regard to Emanuel and the Chicago mayoralty, the conjecture-spouters had some evidence to work with—starting with his recent declaration to Charlie Rose that “if Mayor Daley doesn’t, one day I would like to run.” At the time this column went to press, I was told reliably that Emanuel hadn’t made up his mind, but it’s possible that by the time you read these words he will have taken up residence in the White House departure lounge. Even if Emanuel decides to stick around for now, however, he is unlikely to remain in his current post much past early next year. Indeed, before the Daley announcement, the word around Gotham was that he was actively seeking a big-money gig here.

All of which takes the question of Emanuel’s eventual replacement out of the realm of idle gossip or mere palace intrigue. With the midterm elections just seven weeks away, the president and his party are staring down the barrel of a crushing repudiation at the hands of the Republicans. If that happens, the pressure on Obama for a major White House shake-up will be intense from every quadrant of the Democratic coalition. How he handles it will say a great deal about how he interprets what has befallen him—and also about his capacity for reinvention, rejuvenation, and survival.

Judging from last week, it would appear that Obama doesn’t see a Republican rout as inevitable. In Cleveland he delivered the kind of speech that many Democrats have been pining to hear from him for months: feisty, full-throated, and replete with bright-line contrasts, in which he declared his opposition to extending the Bush tax cuts for the richest Americans, spat out John Boehner’s name repeatedly like a mouthful of curdled milk, and argued that the GOP is offering nothing more than “the same philosophy that we already tried during the decade they were in power—the same philosophy that led to this mess in the first place.”

And yet, if history is any guide, the ultimate effect of all this huffing and puffing may be de minimis. In 1994, please recall, Bill Clinton did much the same in the face of a Republican strategy to nationalize the midterms as a referendum on his administration: barnstorming the country, seeking to energize the Democratic base by decrying the GOP’s nihilism, invoking the name of Newt Gingrich to personify the opposition, and painting the Republican agenda as a retread of Reaganism. “We’ve been there,” Clinton said at the time. “We’ve seen that. We’ve tried it. And we will not be fooled again.”

What makes these parallels all the more ominous is that Democrats are in worse shape today than they were at this point in 1994. According to the NBC News–Wall Street Journal poll released last week, the GOP holds a 49-40 percent generic-ballot lead among likely voters; an ABC–Washington Post poll put the margin at a staggering 53-40. The former survey found that just 26 percent of voters believe the economy will improve this year, while 61 percent say the country is on the wrong track, up from 48 percent a year ago. No wonder that the consensus among analysts is now that the Republicans will take back the House and even have an outside chance of seizing control of the Senate.

Thus is it looking increasingly likely that Obama will wake up on November 3 facing what one longtime Democratic strategist calls a “Clinton moment.” The passage of time has fuzzed up memories of the degree of bewilderment, anger, and recrimination that gripped the White House in early November 1994. Clinton’s staff split into warring factions. The president fell into despond.

Less hazy is the process by which Clinton stitched his presidency back together: the deft (or craven, or both) strategy known as triangulation, the brainchild of the ideologically ambidextrous consultant Dick Morris, whom the president brought into the White House after the midterm pasting. But Morris was just one part of a team that had been drastically reconfigured in the first half of 42’s first term. By January 1995, Clinton was on his second chief of staff, Treasury secretary, Defense secretary, and National Economic Council director, and was surrounded by a raft of new political hands. Almost no one, save George Stephanopoulos, who had helped put him in the White House still remained among his top advisers. Partly this churning was a function of Clinton’s inherent tendency toward chaos; partly it was a result of his yen for new ideas, fresh blood. It wasn’t pretty. But it worked.

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.

Obama’s Chief Issue