What President Obama should have realized about Rahm Emanuel

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, February 27, 2010; A15

President Obama can't say he wasn't warned. But the advice was ignored. Now it has come to pass. To explain:

Eighteen months ago, I warned then-presidential candidate Barack Obama that should he get elected, he should not allow his administration to fall into the clutches of Washington insiders ["A Heretic's Advice To Obama," June 21, 2008]. The caution sign was raised based on years of observing this town's political movers and shakers at work.

I conceded at the time that folks who know their way around Capitol Hill, and are on good terms with Washington pundits and the media, can be valuable to an incoming president.

However, I posited, there is a danger in relying on these power brokers, be they Democrats or Republicans. They may join a new administration and set out to work for its success. But let the new president hit a rough patch -- as all chief executives do -- and some Washington insiders will go to ground in a heartbeat.

That's because the last thing Washington insiders want is association with anything resembling a bumbling failure. Their immediate concern is to salvage their reputations and maintain their A-list standing in this ever-so-status-conscious town.

One way they cover themselves when things go off the rails is to begin lamenting to friends and -- directly or through friends -- to journalists about how the new and "naive" president is failing to heed their wise counsel.

That prophecy was fulfilled on Sunday in a Post piece by political columnist Dana Milbank, one of this town's most trenchant observers ["Why Obama needs Rahm at the top," Sunday Opinions, Feb. 21].

Milbank addressed the case of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a former everything (Illinois congressman, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Democratic Congressional Campaign committee chair and Clinton White House adviser) and a certified Washington Insider.

It has been said that Obama had to go to some lengths to get the well-wired Emanuel to leave the Hill and help the new administration navigate the ways of Washington.

But now, as Milbank noted, Obama's approval rating has dipped below 50 percent, and Emanuel is taking some heat. He is accused of not having what it takes to run the White House or serve as Obama's gatekeeper.

That kind of rap is bad for an A-list guy like Emanuel, whose rep is based on his ability to get things done.

Thus I was drawn to Milbank's column, which he said was not based on interviews with Emanuel. Apparently others in the know about inner White House workings talked out of school.

It's hard to recall the last time differences between a White House chief of staff and his boss have been aired so publicly -- and to the president's distinct disadvantage.

The column made it clear that on those key decisions that ended up landing the administration in trouble, it was the president -- not Rahm Emanuel -- who got it wrong.


-- Emanuel "bitterly" opposed former White House counsel Greg Craig's plan to close Guantanamo within a year but was overruled by Obama. "The president would have been better off heeding Emanuel's counsel";

-- Emanuel fought against Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to try Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York and lost. "Another political fiasco";

-- Emanuel argued for a smaller, more politically popular health-care bill, but Obama disregarded that strategy. "The result was . . . disastrous";

-- Emanuel successfully got 11 substantive bills on Obama's desk in the first half of 2009, but in the second half, Obama let himself get bogged down with big-ticket items and the momentum stopped. "Congress has ground to a halt."

When Obama wasn't screwing up, the column suggested, his close confidants -- Valerie Jarrett, Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod (dubbed "the Cult of Obama") -- were.

There's this jewel of an inside jab: "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."

It was, perhaps, cheeky of me to say in the June 2008 column that personal aggrandizement is everything to Washington insiders. But I didn't rule them out of administration jobs. "They know stuff," I acknowledged. "Just don't put them in charge."

I also said that a new president can learn from Washington insiders, at least enough to avoid some of the perils of inside-the-Beltway politics. And added: "But beware: These folks come with a price."

Get it now, Mr. President?


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