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Why Obama needs Rahm at the top

(Charles Rex Arbogast/associated Press)

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The president disregarded that strategy and sided with Capitol Hill liberals who hoped to ram a larger, less popular bill through Congress with Democratic votes only. The result was, as the world now knows, disastrous.

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Had it gone Emanuel's way, a politically popular health-care bill would have passed long ago, leaving plenty of time for other attractive priorities, such as efforts to make college more affordable. We would have seen a continuation of the momentum of the first half of 2009, when Obama followed Emanuel's strategy and got 11 substantive bills on his desk before the August recess.

Instead, Congress has ground to a halt, on climate legislation, Wall Street reforms and virtually everything else. Emanuel, schooled by Bill Clinton, knew what the true believers didn't: that bite-sized proposals add up to big things.

Contrast Emanuel's wisdom with that of Jarrett, in charge of "intergovernmental affairs and public engagement" -- two areas of conspicuous failure. Jarrett also brought in Desiree Rogers as White House social secretary; the Salahi embarrassment ensued. Then there's Gibbs. It's hard to make the case that you're a post-partisan president when your on-camera spokesman is a hyper-partisan former campaign flack.

No wonder Emanuel has set up his own small press operation and outreach function to circumvent the dysfunctional ones that Jarrett and Gibbs run. Obama needs an old Washington hand to replace Jarrett and somebody with gravitas on the podium to step in for Gibbs.

The failure of the president's message also reflects on his message maven, Axelrod, who is an adept strategist but blinded by Obama love. A good example was Obama's unproductive China trip in November. Jarrett, Gibbs and Axelrod went along as courtiers; Emanuel remained at his desk in Washington, struggling to keep alive the big health-care bill that he didn't want in the first place.

In hiring Emanuel, Obama avoided the mistakes of his Democratic predecessors, who first gave the chief of staff job to besotted loyalists. Now in trouble, Obama needs fewer acolytes and more action. Rahm should stay.

danamilbank@washpost.com


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