By Dana Milbank
Sunday, February 21, 2010; A13
Let us now praise Rahm Emanuel.
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.
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.
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.