Saturday, August 15, 2009

Emanuel wields power freely

“The president has a zenlike quality. Rahm is a pile driver.” David Axelrod President Obama’s senior adviser

Seven months after moving into his office in the West Wing, Mr. Emanuel is emerging as perhaps the most influential White House chief of staff in a generation. But with his prominence in almost everything important going on in Washington comes a high degree of risk.

Who does not implicitly understand that risk is part of the package will not get to the position he is in, and, if somehow one does, that one will not last long.

As the principal author of Mr. Obama’s do-everything-at-once strategy, he stands to become a figure of consequence in his own right if the administration stabilizes the economy and financial markets, overhauls the health care system and winds down one war while successfully prosecuting another.

The principal author? Perhaps the secondary; his boss is the principal strategist. Emanuel is already a consequential figure. If all things work out his power base will be formidable, and, if things do not go well, he will be sacrificed.

If things do not go well — and right now Mr. Obama’s political popularity is declining, his health care legislation is under conservative assault, the budget deficit is at an eye-popping level and Afghanistan remains volatile — it is Mr. Emanuel whose job will be on the line before Mr. Obama’s.

Political popularity is far too ephemeral for a week's polls, or even a month's, to derail the primary strategy of the Administration. Conservative assault is a lot of noise without much substance; a passed bill on health care reform, which will get done, will deflate the conservative juggernaut back to size. Budgets are not the primary priority right now. And Afghanistan has bedeviled the West, and Russia, for more than a century. It does need to be stabilized, and could well be so in a few months, after its election and some fighting.

David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett with Rahm Emanuel, who seems as if he is also political, legislative and communications director.

The caricature of Mr. Emanuel as a profanity-spewing operative has given way to a more nuanced view: as a profanity-spewing operative with a keen understanding of how to employ power on behalf of a new president with relatively little experience in Washington.

Who was smart enough to hire him.

Although relentlessly deferential to the president, Mr. Emanuel is clearly more chief than staff. While some predecessors husbanded their authority, lest it be diluted, friends said he believed the more someone used power, the more power that person had.

Some times caution is the wrong approach, and this is one of those times: the challenges of a busted economy are enormous, and the opportunity to get several things done within one year are too great to be cautious.

His mantra: take what victories you can, stay on the offensive and do not be afraid to stroke big egos to advance the president’s agenda.

Staying in the offensive is critical, and will prove, I am certain (almost always), the difference, and provide the winning edge. Let the right-wing rant about death squads and government bureaucrats, and focus on what needs to get done.

“I’ve heard more from Rahm in six months than I heard from Andy Card in six years, and Card’s daughter worked for me,” said former Representative Tom Davis, Republican of Virginia, referring to a chief of staff under President George W. Bush.

This is one intense person. He is part of the reason President Obama will be successful, and I think that Senator Obama understood that.

Mr. Emanuel presides over a White House where people are defined by whether they went through the fires of the campaign. He did not. When Mr. Obama invited longtime aides like Mr. Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, to Camp David recently, Mr. Emanuel was not included.


But when a New York Times Magazine profile of Ms. Jarrett last month explored the old scratchiness, White House officials said the normally calm Mr. Obama erupted with anger. An informal edict went out: no more cooperating with staff profiles. As a result, Mr. Emanuel declined a formal interview for this article.

Informal? C'mon.

While jousting with the right, Mr. Emanuel has tried to impose order on the left, dispatching Mr. Messina to weekly meetings with liberal interest groups called the Common Purpose Project, a tactic adopted from the Bush White House. Mr. Emanuel showed up this month amid internal tension over health care. Asked about liberal advertisements aimed at Democrats in conservative districts, he delivered an obscenity-laced tirade about the senselessness of attacking each other, participants said.

Critical. The Left is always intent on infighting, on undermining itself, and on self-destruction, seemingly unable to wield power effectively. Often, ideological purity is made more important than accomplishing concrete results.

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