Dana Milbank's February 21st Washington Post column defending White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel must have created a considerable stir among those in the President's inner circle and those who report on it.
Milbank not only makes a provocative argument that, despite his critics, Emanuel has been an invaluable influence on President Obama, who, Milbank says, has been hurt by not following more of Emanuels' advice, but Milbank goes further. Milbank includes a damaging characterization of Obama's other top advisors leaving readers to wonder just what is going on between Emanuel and his colleagues.
First, the column says:
"..Obama's first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters," wrote Milbank. "Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter."
Milbank's piece, titled Why Obama needs Rahm at the top, argues that one reason Emanuel helps Obama is that while Obama is "airy and idealistic," Emanuel is "earthy and calculating."Milbank says that Obama should have followed Emanuel's advice against trying to close Guantanamo Bay prision within a year; taken Emanuel's advice opposing scheduling a trial for Khalid Sheik Mohammed in New York, and, perhaps most significant, followed Emanuel's recommendatation to split the health care reform bill into smaller bills - which would've had a much better chance for passage - rather than combining all elements into a larger less popular bill.
However, the point that likely shook things up in the Obama White House was this Milbank line:
"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..."
So, what the hell is going on here? Well, first, some perspective is essential. It's important to note that, for whatever the reasons, there have been remarkably few penetrating articles - like this column - about President Obama's inner circle. I refer not to "puff pieces" or features on the individual players, but, rather, articles that attempt to report on the dynamics and interplay between the advisors. During most administrations, by the time the President's first year has passed, there have been many articles that attempt to analyze the President's decisionmaking process and who plays what critical role among his top advisors.
Astonishing as it is, no one, still, really knows how Obama and his team make their biggest decisions. How does Obama get advice? Who does he trust most - across the board? Who does he rely on for various p0licy areas or kinds of situations? How do his top advisors get along?
Further, how does Emanuel fit into all this? Usually, the chief of staff has enormous influence over who gets access to the President; hence, Emanuel's personal relationships with the other top advisors are likely to swing things.
Which brings us back to Milbank's column. Why, after a year of discipline to keep things private, why is Milbank suddenly writing a piece that appears could have been written by Emanuel himself? Milbank denies talking to Emanuel for the column, but, his piece seemed to suggest Milbank had some first-hand familiarity with the subject.
So, I wonder how President Obama reacted to the column. Is it possible that our ever-serene President actually took Rahm to the woodshed over this? I doubt it. I bet Emanuel gave his version to Obama, who listened cooly before making a remark or two indicating his dissatisfaction. But, who knows? I wish we had a sense of this side of Obama. How does he feel about the loyalty of Emanuel or his other top advisors>
Let's face it: If, by chance, Obama cannot handle or lead his top advisors - including Emanuel - effectively - it bodes very poorly for the rest of his Presidency. Let's hope that's not so.
Emanuel had a reputation from Day One; he had a big ego; he could be a jerk at times; he was a no-nonsense, direct talker; he was a sharp strategist who knew Congress extremely well. Some believed he'd be capable of bringing some control and clout to the White House staff.
Who knows how he's fared? The extent to which he agrees of disagrees with Obama day-to-day or week-to week on policy, on approach, on strategy, on which people to work with or not
I've read many stories that suggested Emanuel has played a substantial role in trying to carry Obama's message or signals during the battle over health care reform to his former colleagues in the US House of Representatives or the US Senate. Emanuel has been described as the US Congress' key liaison to the White House, but, each time I've read these references, they've caused me concern. How can Emanuel be a good liaison to Congress while managing his duties as chief of staff? My own answer is: He couldn't do both well, really......and, while I know the White House has had other people performing that liaison function, all the focus has been on Emanuel.
It seems, at times, Emanuel alienates some members of Congress along the way. Should he even be in this role of spending time on Congressional matters? Well, my answer is conditional: He should be doing it only if the President and he have really been on the same page and communicating well about all matters relating to health care. I doubt that has been true.
This brings me my response to Milbank's other major point: That Jarrett, Gibbs and Axelrod have an inflated view of Obama and that this colors their entire treatment of him. My impression of the Obama White House, at this point, is that, yes, in fact, not enough of his advisors are speaking the truth to him about how he comes across and other matters. You get a sense that Obama desparately needs some plain, blunt talk from his advisors, best friends and family. Someone should tell him he's overexposed, for instance. Someone should tell him that when he makes a typical public appearance, he talks too long - period. Someone should tell him to stop making so many appearances across the country and to stop doing media interviews, but, when he does, they should add, he should stop coming across like he's "lecturing" or explaining his positions. He has to loosen up and describe his outlook more - to humanize his image.
I hope there are many more articles and columns like Dana Milbank's in the weeks aheaad. We all should know a bit more about how Obama makes decisions with his inner circle. The less it's a secret, the more it'll let people feel they know Obama a bit better, and he, needs to be better understood right now.
I'll go further by saying I hope Obama and his team leak exchanges from occasional meetings they participate in. Why? To give us examples of how Obama leads and how he runs meetings. People, after one year, still feel they don't know this young President. His irrational, irresponsible right-wing critics have painted a distorted portrait of him.
It's time for Obama and his closest staff to open up more. I give Dana Milbank credit for writing one column that shares his insight and opinions about how things have worked out with Emanuel and Obama. It might inspire more pieces like it - and we'd all benefit from it.
If a bit more reporting on the inner circle happens, I think it'd help the White House. If Obama's team keeps avoiding that coverage, one would have to ask: What are they trying to hide?