President Obama’s closest handlers — Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett, and Robert Gibbs — are under fire from a number of observers, including this one, for deploying the President’s political capital badly, failing to animate and empower the considerable policy and political talent they have appointed to key positions on their team, poorly sequencing their policy gambits, and not having “plan B’s” ready to go after they threw down the gauntlet on some challenge (Israeli settlements comes to mind), among other sins.
The team is failing on most, if not all, of the major policy challenges that the Obama administration accepted as the defining ones for his tenure. Health care reform is on life support, although one has to give credit to President Obama for commitment for trying to get something done — though political analyst Charlie Cook has just called this a “Captain Ahab-like” obsession that could sink his presidency. Efforts to recreate America’s global leverage have failed by following incrementalist policy paths rather than taking well-coordinated, well-planned strategic leaps on Israel-Palestine and Iran.
The President, while doing much to miss the bullet of a global economic depression, has presided over the resuscitation of Wall Street and many of the firms that recklessly gambled while main street remains precariously near an edge and where many fear the potential of a double dip recession when the stimulus comes out of the economy.
Like any corporation or organization that has a crisis that has undermined the confidence of its constituents, shake-ups are normal. Sometimes the CEO goes, which is not possible or desirable with a President, but a shake-up of the team beneath him — no matter whether there is legitimate blame or not to be had — would be a healthy course.
Some critics of my view and others like Edward Luce at the Financial Times, Leslie Gelb at the Daily Beast, and Jane Hamsher at FireDogLake who have written on the “Rahm plus three crisis” say that these people are largely unknown to the American public so getting rid of them buys Obama nothing with the broader public.
This is one of those few cases where the crisis of confidence with elites and those who engineer and craft serious political enterprises are the constituency — not the grassroots. But the grassroots as well as the political grasstops see and feel Obama’s failure to lock in success. In this context, the political stumbling, back-stabbing and brusqueness emanating from the Chief of Staff’s office and others close to Obama is toxic and politically crippling.
Obama and his closest advisers have managed to divide their friends and unite their enemies — and they must turn this around. There are ways to do so that are respectful to Emanuel, Jarrett, Axelrod, and Gibbs — each of whom are talented in a great number of ways. They don’t all need to go. But their monopoly of control and access — and Obama’s own solicitousness of them needs to be replaced by smarter empowerment of smart people in the executive branch and even inside the incumbent White House.
I think Obama needs to do one of his famous meet, greet, and chat dinners with some of his more serious critics — those who want him to succeed but see serious problems. Obama should use this as a mirror to hold up to himself — and he should not bring Rahm, Valerie, Gibbs, or Axe to that meeting.
The Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank wrote a piece on Sunday that seemed to me to channel Rahm. It portrayed Rahm to be a political genius scorned and rebuffed by a naive and inexperienced President. But it joined with Luce, Gelb, and Clemons in raising serious doubts about Gibbs, Jarrett, and Axelrod’s performance.
I am convinced in subsequent communications with Dana Milbank that he did not speak to Rahm Emanuel about the piece — but nonetheless, Milbank’s interesting article carries a fascinating narrative of what might have been if Rahm Emanuel had only had his way through a number of policy battles.
Dana Milbank is a top tier journalist, and I don’t question at all the integrity of his piece — and just want to make that clear.
That said, I do believe that Milbank is wrong to celebrate Emanuel in a way that depicts Rahm and his views to be a bloodied “victim” of others on Obama’s team.
I would also add that Milbank is wrong about the Gregory Craig affair. The plans to shut GITMO, the identification of the Illinois-based Thomson Correction Facility, and a plan for moving, releasing, deporting, and trying each and every one of the Guantanamo detainees was finished three months after Obama got the keys to the White House.
What was lacking was Rahm’s agreement to wring the appropriations needed out of the Congress and to begin a political process to deal with what was clearly going to be a political hurdle absorbing some of the detainees into the American legal system inside formal U.S. borders. Emanuel quashed a plan that had been completed.
It is untrue that the GITMO closing was not possible within a year. It was only not possible because Rahm Emanuel convinced the President that spending political capital on GITMO would undermine them in other policy battles, particularly health care, and forfeit national security points to the Republicans in 2010.
Someone should assemble all the various informed accounts of current White House management into a Faulkneresque portal into that world. All of the accounts, even Dana Milbank’s, points to serious dysfunction, missteps, and failure.
Dana Milbank’s article, whether he intended it or not, has started a battle among these giants around Obama that is a total antithesis to the kind of culture around Obama in his campaign, at least as reported in David Plouffe’s account.
My colleague at the New America Foundation, the Pulitzer Prize winning author and New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll once remarked to me something quite positive about the military and its approach to Afghanistan — a topic on which Coll and I respectfully disagree and have somewhat different views. But he made a good point on something.
Coll said that when the U.S. military read that it was clearly losing in Afghanistan and that its course was taking it to increasingly worse outcomes, the military had the guts and backbone to fire its commander there, General David McKiernan, and to try another course under General Stanley McChrystal.
The military didn’t just dog it out with what appeared to be ineffective leadership and a failed plan.
I don’t often recommend that Barack Obama give the Pentagon more attention than he already has because he tends to do more Pentagon-hugging than reforming, but in this case, the example that Steve Coll shared is a useful metaphor for what the White House needs to do with its own team.
Shake things up.
Obama needs to strategically redeploy his closest group of advisers, change up the game, move some others in, and alter their assignments. And then get smart about how he can work forward from the deficit he’s now in on policies that his administration needs to pursue — in a sensible sequence and reestablishing momentum and vision.
— Steve Clemons