Last week, when President Obama made his most recent verbal jab at Las Vegas, I joked on Twitter that Obama needs to decide if he wants to be the president of the entire United States, or simply the mayor of Chicago, who could get away with such an intercity rivalry. And speaking of the Second City, the other day, the Financial Times noted that it is indeed the Chicago-based wing of his administration that’s dragging him down (in addition to the antiquated worldview of “progressivism” itself, of course, and ignoring that ultimately, the buck stops with The Won):
Just over a year into his tenure, America’s 44th president governs a bitterly divided nation, a world increasingly hard to manage and an America that seems more disillusioned than ever with Washington’s ways. What went wrong?
Pundits, Democratic lawmakers and opinion pollsters offer a smorgasbord of reasons – from Mr Obama’s decision to devote his first year in office to healthcare reform, to the president’s inability to convince voters he can “feel their [economic] pain”, to the apparent ungovernability of today’s Washington. All may indeed have contributed to the quandary in which Mr Obama finds himself. But those around him have a more specific diagnosis – and one that is striking in its uniformity. The Obama White House is geared for campaigning rather than governing, they say.
In dozens of interviews with his closest allies and friends in Washington – most of them given unattributably in order to protect their access to the Oval Office – each observes that the president draws on the advice of a very tight circle. The inner core consists of just four people – Rahm Emanuel, the pugnacious chief of staff; David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, his senior advisers; and Robert Gibbs, his communications chief.
Two, Mr Emanuel and Mr Axelrod, have box-like offices within spitting distance of the Oval Office. The president, who is the first to keep a BlackBerry, rarely holds a meeting, including on national security, without some or all of them present.
With the exception of Mr Emanuel, who was a senior Democrat in the House of Representatives, all were an integral part of Mr Obama’s brilliantly managed campaign. Apart from Mr Gibbs, who is from Alabama, all are Chicagoans – like the president. And barring Richard Nixon’s White House, few can think of an administration that has been so dominated by such a small inner circle.
“It is a very tightly knit group,” says a prominent Obama backer who has visited the White House more than 40 times in the past year. “This is a kind of ‘we few’ group … that achieved the improbable in the most unlikely election victory anyone can remember and, unsurprisingly, their bond is very deep.”
John Podesta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and founder of the Center for American Progress, the most influential think-tank in Mr Obama’s Washington, says that while he believes Mr Obama does hear a range of views, including dissenting advice, problems can arise from the narrow composition of the group itself.
Among the broader circle that Mr Obama also consults are the self-effacing Peter Rouse, who was chief of staff to Tom Daschle in his time as Senate majority leader; Jim Messina, deputy chief of staff; the economics team led by Lawrence Summers and including Peter Orszag, budget director; Joe Biden, the vice-president; and Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser. But none is part of the inner circle.
“Clearly this kind of core management approach worked for the election campaign and President Obama has extended it to the White House,” says Mr Podesta, who managed Mr Obama’s widely praised post-election transition. “It is a very tight inner circle and that has its advantages. But I would like to see the president make more use of other people in his administration, particularly his cabinet.”
Meanwhile, as “Obama’s ‘Reset’ Button” is “Quickly Changing to ‘Panic'” and he appears to be going into bunker mode as a result, he’s going to need is staff more than ever to keep getting his message out.
Whatever it is this week. Just don’t question it, or the terrorists will have won!
Related: “It’s fine to blame the four horsemen, or to scapegoat Rahm. But the problem starts at the top.”
Update: As Jennifer Rubin writes, “If the Czar Only Knew”…
That’s not to say that Emanuel doesn’t deserve criticism. He is the chief of staff in an administration sinking below the waterline. He reportedly mucked around in the Afghan war-strategy process, prolonging it and causing the president to look irresolute and weak. He has been front and center in the “bully Israel” approach to the Middle East, which ranks up there with the most lame-brained ideas of this administration. And he has set a tone of crass partisanship, arrogance, and plain mean-spiritedness that has not served the administration well.
But let’s face it: the president is thrilled with him. If David Brooks has it right, it’s a lovefest over at the White House. Everyone is on the same page, and nary a word of internal dissention is heard. (”Yet the atmosphere in the White House appears surprisingly tranquil. Emanuel is serving as a lighting rod for the president but remains crisply confident in his role as chief of staff.”) But that bit of Obama insidery might not be all that helpful in the long run. It undermines the theory — and the hope of Democrats — that the extreme policy, the tone deafness, and the ham-handedness are not Obama’s doing or his fault. You see, there’s little room for Obama to maneuver, shift the blame to errant aides, and maintain his deity-like status if all of this left-wing policy and the political faux pas festival stem from Obama’s policy vision and reflect his political instincts. Oops. Maybe not the most helpful column, after all.
Let’s get real. An administration reflects the strengths and weaknesses of the president. He sets the tone and controls policy. If Democrats and the country at large are unhappy with the results, there is only one person responsible. And it’s not Rahm Emanuel.