Obama's chief-of-staff undone after setbacks

"Rahmbo" was Obama's enforcer – but after a string of setbacks he has fallen from grace

Rupert Cornwell
Thursday 11 March 2010 01:00

At the best of times, Rahm Emanuel was always drawn, coiled, and combative. These days though, after less than 14 months on the job, his face is tauter, more lined and even thinner. And not surprisingly. For these times are far from the best. Indeed, Washington is starting to wonder: is President Obama's Chief of Staff, arguably the second most powerful man in the capital of the free world, about to walk the plank?

Mr Emanuel seemed the perfect choice when Mr Obama made him the first appointment of his administration. A top adviser in Bill Clinton's White House, Mr Emanuel then had a spell in private banking before embarking on a meteoric career in Congress that had already positioned him as a future Speaker of the House. This glittering CV seemed to make him the ideal foil for a young, untried President who had spent just four years in Washington (and two of those, in truth, mostly on the campaign trail).

Soon Mr Emanuel was being described as the most powerful Chief of Staff since James Baker kept the White House trains running on time during Ronald Reagan's first term. His intensity and profanity were already legendary on Capitol Hill; in the White House, he did nothing to discourage his "Rahmbo" image.

President Obama might be the idealistic boss who mapped out the goals. The 50-year-old Mr Emanuel was the enforcer who got things done. And for a while he did – above all the $787bn (£526bn) stimulus package, plus a variety of smaller measures half-forgotten now as Obama's signature initiatives such as health care, financial-market reform and climate-change legislation have run into the Congressional sands.

As disillusion has grown with Mr Obama the President, however, so has the controversy surrounding Mr Emanuel. For many liberals, he is an unrelenting pragmatist too ready to compromise the pure principles of Obama-ism; by the independents and moderate Republicans who switched to candidate Obama in 2008, he is held to be too divisive and over-partisan, a roadblock in the way of the new politics of reason that the incoming President promised.

These days, Mr Emanuel seems to feature in every Washington flap. When he reportedly described over-demanding liberal activists as "retarded", he was obliged to apologise to the Special Olympics organisation. The melodramatic resignation this week of the New York Congressman Eric Massa also has a lurid Emanuel angle; Mr Massa refers to the Chief of Staff as "the son of the devil's spawn" who helped force him out of office to clear the way for the passage of health-care reform. Indeed, Mr Massa has even claimed that Mr Emanuel confronted him over a budget vote when both men were stark naked in the shower at the Congressional gym (the White House denies the incident).

But Mr Emanuel's current troubles began in earnest with the stunning Republican capture of Ted Kennedy's former seat in Massachusetts, costing Democrats their filibuster-proof 60 seats in the Senate, and halting the health-care bill in its tracks. Within days, influential newspaper articles and blogs were starting to ascribe Mr Obama's difficulties to a tight-knit "Chicago Mafia" that sealed the President off from reality.

Matters worsened a couple of weeks ago when a Washington Post column leapt to Mr Emanuel's defence, arguing that had Mr Obama taken his Chief of Staff's advice, his presidency would be in far better shape. Insiders picked up the irresistible scent of White House in-fighting – even though there is not the slightest evidence Mr Emanuel had deliberately inspired the piece. This weekend, Emanuel goes under the microscope again, in a 5,000-word piece in The New York Times magazine.

In fact, a familiar Washington ritual is under way. Whenever a President hits a rocky patch, sooner or later the knives come out for his close advisers. A "Georgia Mafia", ignorant of the ways of Washington, was widely blamed for Jimmy Carter's problems; much the same happened early on with Bill Clinton – who after just a year replaced his old Arkansas school buddy Thomas "Mack" McLarty as Chief of Staff with the wise old Washington hand Leon Panetta. So will Mr Emanuel now meet a similar fate?

The answer is surely, no. For Mr Obama to jettison him now would be seen as a sign of weakness – and if health care does pass, both the President and his Chief of Staff will be transformed overnight from blunderers into political geniuses. But it would be surprising if Mr Emanuel lasted an entire term: not because of his abrasiveness or perceived incompetence; but simply because, as his own lined face betrays, the post is so demanding.

James Baker and Andy Card, who did the job between 2001 and 2006 for George W Bush, are the exception. On average, White House Chiefs of Staff last two and a half years or so. But as Alexander Haig, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld attest, the job can be a springboard for even higher things. Mr Emanuel probably will never now be Speaker. But he is said to have set his sights on Mayor of Chicago. And for a reputed member of a Windy City political mafia, what greater prize exists than that?

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