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Why Obama needs Rahm at the top

(Charles Rex Arbogast/associated Press)

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By Dana Milbank
Sunday, February 21, 2010

Let us now praise Rahm Emanuel.

No, seriously.

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It is the current fashion to blame President Obama's disappointing first year on his chief of staff. "First, remove Rahm Emanuel," writes Leslie Gelb in the Daily Beast, because he lacks "the management skills and discipline to run the White House."

The Financial Times's Ed Luce reports that the "famously irascible" Emanuel has "alienated many of Mr. Obama's closest outside supporters," while the New America Foundation's Steve Clemons lumps Emanuel in with the "Core Chicago Team Sinking Obama Presidency."

They join liberal interests who despised Emanuel long before he branded them "retarded." Jane Hamsher of firedoglake.com, together with conservative activist Grover Norquist, demanded a Justice Department investigation into Emanuel, who is "far too compromised to serve as gatekeeper to the president."

As Emanuel would say: What the [expletive deleted]?

Clearly, "Rahmbo" has no shortage of enemies in this town, and with Obama's approval rating dipping below 50 percent, they have ammunition. But sacking Emanuel is the last thing the president should do.

Obama's first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters. Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter.

Obama chose the profane former Clinton adviser for a reason. Where the president is airy and idealistic, Rahm is earthy and calculating. One thinks big; the other, a former House Democratic Caucus chair, understands the congressional mind, in which small stuff counts for more than broad strokes.

Obama's problem is that his other confidants -- particularly Valerie Jarrett and Robert Gibbs, and, to a lesser extent, David Axelrod -- are part of the Cult of Obama. In love with the president, they believe he is a transformational figure who needn't dirty his hands in politics.

The president would have been better off heeding Emanuel's counsel. For example, Emanuel bitterly opposed former White House counsel Greg Craig's effort to close the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year, arguing that it wasn't politically feasible. Obama overruled Emanuel, the deadline wasn't met, and Republicans pounced on the president and the Democrats for trying to bring terrorists to U.S. prisons. Likewise, Emanuel fought fiercely against Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to send Khalid Sheik Mohammed to New York for a trial. Emanuel lost, and the result was another political fiasco.

Obama's greatest mistake was failing to listen to Emanuel on health care. Early on, Emanuel argued for a smaller bill with popular items, such as expanding health coverage for children and young adults, that could win some Republican support. He opposed the public option as a needless distraction.


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