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Faux White House Intrigue Obscures Deeper Disarray: Albert Hunt

David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel at the White House
David Axelrod, senior adviser to U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, talk during an event at the White House in Washington, May 26, 2009. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Late last week, the best topic for this column seemed to be warfare inside the White House: dueling op-eds, blogs and articles debated whether Rahm Emanuel was the cause of Barack Obama’s winter of discontent, or was it that the president and his other top adviser, David Axelrod, had ignored the chief of staff’s sage counsel.

More than the war in Afghanistan or the fate of health care or the economy, that was the chatter of Washington. Several smart people were queried about this juicy stuff.

A few hours later, a call: “It’s the love guys.” Emanuel and Axelrod were on the phone insisting the friction story reflected small-minded Washington games.

“This guy is responsible for all that we’ve done here; it’s his sheer will,” Axelrod, 55, said of the chief of staff. “That character of the brand is essential; David has been the key,” was the return compliment from Emanuel, 50.

It hasn’t been quite that benign. Only a few hours before the unsolicited call one of the few people close to both men worried about a “meltdown” at the top level of the White House.

Earlier in the week, the president summoned these top staff members, according to one second-hand source, to a combination pep talk and woodshed lecture: We’re sticking together and we have each other’s back.

Actually, the president’s problems are different, deeper: the inability to fashion a sustainable strategy for governing, to prioritize the velocity of the issues on the agenda. Back to that later.

Washington Culture

The faux personal feud reveals a lot about the culture of Washington. Starting with a blog last month in The Daily Beast by Leslie Gelb, an experienced diplomat and journalist.

He declared Obama “desperately needs a sweeping shakeup,” starting with replacing the management- challenged Emanuel, ideally with one of former President Bill Clinton’s staff chiefs. The economic team should be sacked and policy directed by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, an 82-year-old Obama adviser; the foreign-policy team should be canned and led by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, 82.

These recommendations resembled less the makings of a contemporary governing team than a colloquy in the lush, wood-paneled conference room at the Council on Foreign Relations, where the 73-year-old Gelb is president emeritus. Among the few people who paid any attention were some Emanuel political allies.

‘Rahm at the Top’

Soon they hit back via Dana Milbank, a provocative and often snarky Washington Post columnist, with a piece titled “Obama Needs Rahm at the Top.” The president is in trouble because he, and advisers like Axelrod, didn’t follow Emanuel’s advice on issues ranging from trying terror suspects in civilian courts to health-care tactics. This was followed by a news story along similar lines on the front page of the Post.

This is mainly babble. What is unusual about the Gelb column is that someone so smart could write something so silly and naive; the Milbank column was a mixture of the superficial and hyperbole.

The real damage, Emanuel and Axelrod realize, is to Obama. Staff differences have little to do with this president’s problems.

He inherited a miserable economic and fiscal situation, he chose an exceedingly ambitious agenda, and he faces an opposition party that has no interest in compromise.

Campaign Strategy

Yet there is a larger self-created problem for which Emanuel and Axelrod are only partly to blame. Go back to the remarkable Obama campaign of 2007-2008. More than any of its rivals, it had a strategic sense of what it was, where it wanted to go.

This provided a shield against setbacks: losing the New Hampshire primary, the candidate’s careless remarks about rural Pennsylvania voters or even the incendiary remarks of Obama’s pastor. These became speed bumps in the strategic narrative.

That is missing in the Obama presidency. Too often it seems situational rather than strategic, reactive more than proactive. Thus setbacks, from minor ones, such as the handling of the Christmas Day bomber, to major ones, like the loss of the Senate seat in Massachusetts, throw team Obama off stride, and leave voters confused.

This is a far larger problem than, for instance, whether Obama should have listened to his chief of staff rather than his politically tone-deaf attorney general on trying the suspected Sept. 11 terrorist mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, in New York City. (He should have.)

Close Associates

Indeed, this is a talented White House staff, starting with Emanuel and Axelrod. And these two Chicagoans have been close political associates since helping direct Mayor Richard M. Daley’s first successful campaign in 1989; Axelrod pushed Emanuel for the White House job.

That role isn’t a managerial one; it is to understand the nexus of politics and policy. The extensive managerial background of Donald Regan, under Ronald Reagan, and Mack McLarty, under Clinton, didn’t enable them to succeed. The Baker boys, Jim and Howard (Reagan) and John Podesta (Clinton), had little managerial expertise and were great chiefs of staff. Critics would be hard pressed to identify anyone who better understands that nexus of politics and policy today than Emanuel.

Star Cabinet

A more legitimate criticism is the minor role assigned others. Obama has perhaps the most talented cabinet in recent years; it’s also the most under-utilized. The only people who’ve heard of Shaun Donovan are the experts who know he’s one of the most impressive secretaries of Housing and Urban Development in a long time.

The November midterm elections are likely to go badly for the White House, though the Republicans’ ability to hide their schisms -- the right versus the far right -- may be unraveling a little, which could jeopardize their hopes for huge gains.

Over the longer run, the central question is whether the president gets a health-care bill through Congress and whether there will be a continuum of improving jobs reports, like last month’s.

Most important, however, is whether the Obama administration can emulate the Obama campaign and fashion a coherent strategy for governing. That matters a lot more than whether the president listens to Emanuel or Axelrod.

(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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