Monthly Archives: March 2010

Rahmbo’s Role: A Recipe for a Short Tenure?

The debate during the last several weeks regarding Rahm “Rahmbo” Emanuel’s role in the Obama White House provides an opportunity to revisit a topic that is one of my main research interests, and about which I’ve written extensively in academic journals: what is the most effective way for a president to organize his White House staff?  To anticipate my answer below: it’s not by having a chief of staff who serves – as Emanuel apparently does – as a de facto “prime minister” of government.

Note that my criticism of Emanuel’s role differs from that of progressives like Dan Froomkin and  Katrina vanden Heuvel, who argue that Emanuel’s brand of “purple centrism … is dangerous to Obama’s presidency”.  In part, the progressive critique dates back to the 2006 midterms, where Emanuel,  as the Democratic Party’s campaign committee chair, recruited moderate and conservative candidates who won races in normally Republican-leaning districts. Emanuel’s critics argue that Emanuel missed an opportunity to capitalize on the Democratic wave that year by recruiting more progressive Democrats to Congress.  Instead, these conservatives are now a roadblock to passing health care.  I think this is a dubious claim; as this American Prospect article points out, “only 12 of the 41 Democrats elected in 2006 number among the most conservative 20 percent of all House Democrats in the current Congress — which is to say that they are not dramatically more conservative… .”

Nor do I disagree with Emanuel’s defenders who portray him – not inaccurately – as the White House’s “voice of reason”.’  Instead, my criticism centers on the tension inherent in Emanuel’s expansive role as both chief of staff responsible for coordinating operations within the White House and chief lobbyist on Capitol Hill on behalf of the President’s legislative program. That role is described in some detail by Peter Baker in his New York Times magazine  article published last Sunday.  In Baker’s words, “Emanuel seems to serve as a virtual prime minister, the most powerful chief of staff since James Baker managed the White House during Ronald Reagan’s first term.” Baker summarizes Emanuel’s role this way:  “[Emanuel] meets with Obama at the beginning of each day and again at the end, in between dipping his hands into virtually everything the White House does, from economic policy to national security. In any meeting with the president, he sits to Obama’s left and is typically called on at the end to summarize arguments and present his recommendations. He works the phone and e-mail with energy, staying in touch each day in staccato fashion with a dizzying array of lawmakers, officials, lobbyists, journalists and political operatives.” That is consistent with the description in this article of Emanuel’s role: “According to almost everyone who has ever worked with him, he has an insatiable need to be in the mix, and he is deeply concerned with the news of the day. His office is the White House nerve center. ‘In order to get a final decision, everything needs to go through Rahm’s office,’ said a former administration official … .”

History suggests that chief of staffs like Emanual who serve as both chief political officer and who operate as the White House “nerve center” tend to attract criticism earlier and more extensively.  The result is that they become political liabilities much more quickly than do chief of staffs who serve either as chief political officer OR serve primarily as the administration’s traffic cop.  As evidence, consider the following table compiled by Andrew Cohen that lists every chief of staff who has served since Nixon’s administration, when the chief of staff role became an institutionalized part of the modern White House staff organization. (Note: it may be easier to view the table by clicking on it to view as a separate document.)

chief of staff

I’m currently putting together more detailed data regarding the time served by each of these chief of staffs, but using the years listed here by Cohen we see that the chiefs’ average tenure is about 2 ½ years.  However, this is a bit misleading, since not every chief of staff listed above had the opportunity to serve a full term. If we restrict our analysis to those seven chiefs who, like Emanual, took their post at the start of a presidential term, we see that the average tenure is closer to about 3 years.  Note, however, that this average figure obscures clear differences among the tenures of particular chiefs.  To understand why these tenures differ, I’ve constructed an admittedly crude table that attempts to place each chief in one of four boxes, depending on whether they served primarily in a political advising role, an administrative coordinating role, or both.  Within each box I also list the average number of years each “type” of aide served.  Again, this is a rough approximation of their time in office, but I think it illustrates my point.

Strong Political Role Weak Political Role
Strong Coordinator Sununu, Regan,  2 years Card, Haldeman 4.5 years
Weak Coordinator James Baker, Rumsfeld 3 years McClarty 1 year

Emanuel is often compared to James Baker, who, as Peter Baker writes in the Times piece “was also an experienced, savvy operator who took the arrows for his boss. Just as Emanuel is often criticized by the left for steering Obama toward the middle, Baker was considered a moderate who tempered Reagan’s more conservative instincts.”  But there is a difference. Baker, particularly early in his term, largely delegated administrative oversight to his deputy Dick Darman. And Baker’s influence within the White House was tempered by the countervailing presences of Ed Meese, Reagan’s chief policy adviser, and Mike Deaver who handled Reagan’s public side.

Admittedly, the data is at best suggestive.  There are surely other factors at play that might explain the different tenure rates.  Both John Sununu and Mack McClarty, for instance, had little national experience which may partly explain their early departures. On the other hand, Don Regan had already served four years as Treasury secretary before moving to the White House.  And it may be that aides who take on as much as Emanuel simply burn out more quickly through sheer physical exhaustion.

Nonetheless, the data is also consistent with my claim that the longest serving chief of staffs are those who either serve as the President’s political lobbyist, or who operate primarily behind the scenes as the White House staff manager, responsible for coordinating the actions of the various White House staff units.  In contrast, chiefs of staff who try to exercise both political control and serve as administrative coordinator frequently end up doing neither very well – a recipe for a very short tenure in the White House.

If health care fails to pass, and the Democrats lose control of the House in 2010, the pressure on Obama to revamp his staff will be immense.  As a skilled infighter, Emanual will be tough to remove (assuming he wants to retain his position).  But I would not be surprised if Obama “promotes” Emanual to political adviser, and turns over administrative control of the White House to someone else.

I’m coming for you Axelrod!

I realize that many of my students haven’t actually seen any of the Rambo movies.  If we need any more evidence that as a society we are truly slouching toward Gomorrah, it’s surely the failure of the current generation to view these cinematic masterpieces.  When it comes to acting, I can think of few individuals who possess the gravitas and sheer talent of  Sylvester Stallone.  I will always remember the evening I spent in Dumfries, Scotland,  attending the overseas premier of Stallone’s Rocky IV.  I was the lone American in an audience of Scots.  At the conclusion of this epic, all the Scots stood as one, applauding and cheering Rocky’s defeat of the Soviet boxer.  I remember wiping away a tear and thinking, this is why our country is a beacon of hope to the rest of the world.  Sly Stallone.

But I digress. The point of today’s post is not to celebrate Rambo, First Blood (although it deserves celebration), but instead to direct your attention to an article in today’s New York Times that drives home the point that I made in yesterday’s post about the survival skills of Rahm “Rahmbo” Emanuel, Obama’s embattled chief of staff.  In that post I indicated that in the battle of political dominance within the White House, Obama’s “campaign crowd” of senior White House staffers – Axelrod, Jarrett, Gibbs – were destined,  much like the pitiful law enforcement officers in First Blood (or any of Rambo’ adversaries for that matter), to be annihilated. Today’s article drives home that point.  In it Axelrod tries to rebut “Recent news reports [that] have cast the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, as the administration’s chief pragmatist, and Mr. Axelrod, by implication, as something of a swooning loyalist.”

A careful read of the article is actually quite revealing on two counts. First, in the middle of the interview, President Obama walks in, “unannounced”, to confer with Axelrod about an upcoming speech about health care.  If the point here is to suggest that the President’s visit was “spontaneous” I should point out that it is also true that I will be the Red Sox opening day pitcher.  Instead, this was almost surely an orchestrated move – as was the entire interview – designed to signal that Axelrod still had the President’s ear.   I made this point yesterday, but it bears repeating: in the Darwinian environment of White House politics, perceptions of influence and access are everything, because staffers lack any independent base of power.  Once you are perceived to lose the President’s ear, your effectiveness is nil.  I  suggested that in the next several days we should look for signs from Obama signaling his support for Emanual.   Instead, what we see is the President bolstering Axelrod’s standing – a sure sign that Emanual is winning the media battle.

The reason for this interview, then is to both signal Axelrod’s prominence within the White House hierarchy and at the same time downplay the notion that there is a rift between Axelrod and Emanuel.  Thus, we read: “Mr. Axelrod is often at the president’s side; he sits in on policy and national security meetings and is routinely the last person he talks to before making a decision. He directs the administration’s external presentation, overseeing polls, focus groups and speeches and appearing on the Sunday shows. Mr. Emanuel describes Mr. Axelrod as ‘an integrator of the three P’s’ — press, policy and politics — ‘and how they make a whole.’”

The fact that the White House took steps to set up this interview is an indication that they take talk of a divided senior staff seriously, and are actively trying to tamp down the controversy.

The second fascinating aspect of the interview is that much of it centers on whether Axelrod – and by extension Obama – has failed to articulate a clear message or overarching philosophy about where the President wants to take the government.  “[W]hat happened to the Mr. Axelrod who so effectively marketed Mr. Obama, the candidate, as a change agent” critics wonder.

By now, I hope you realize just how ridiculous this question is.  The promise of  “change” on the campaign trail has little relevance to the difficulty of actually governing based on solving problems of extraordinary complexity against the backdrop of a polarized Congress, a weak Presidency, and an uncertain public.  It’s one thing to run against a discredited incumbent party on the nebulous promise of change – it’s another to put forth particular solutions to incredibly complex problems, particularly when those solutions are inherently divisive and when the President lacks the capacity to compel support for his policies.

Obama’s “failure” is not one of message – it’s being held accountable, fairly or not, for a stagnant economy, near double-digit unemployment, a stymied health care bill and an ongoing war on terrorism.  Nonetheless, should the Democrats lose their majorities in one or both chambers of Congress this November, the pundits will march on the White House, demanding that heads roll.  If so, it will be Axelrod’s and not Emanuel’s that is likely to go first on the chopping block.

Correction: The original post said that Rocky III ended with Rocky defeating the Soviet boxer – an alert reader (of the much maligned younger generation, no less) informs me that it was Rocky IV.  There is hope for our country, after all.

Rahmbo, First Blood: No President Can Stop Him!

Whenever presidents appear politically vulnerable, as reflected in declining approval ratings, a failure to pass major policy initiatives, or in anticipation of a major electoral defeat, supporters – not wanting to attack the President directly – begin to look for suitable scapegoats.  Typically that means targeting seniors members of the President’s White House staff, in the belief that their bad advice is responsible for the President’s weakened state.

Not surprisingly, given the prevailing media perceptions regarding the precarious state of Obama’s presidency, we have seen precisely this “the staff must go” dynamic at play in the last month, starting with this online column by Leslie Gelb.  Gelb’s column begins:

“The negative, even dismissive, talk about the Obama White House has reached a critical point. The president must change key personnel now. Unless he speedily sets up a new team, he will be reduced to a speechmaker. It’s mostly a matter of relocating the Chicago and campaign crowd who surround the Oval Office and inserting people with proven records of getting things done in Washington and the world.”

We have seen this dynamic before, of course. Early in the Clinton presidency, after the health care debacle and a series of other missteps (the near failure to pass a budget, gays in the military, the haircut that allegedly closed LA X airport), Clinton – his poll numbers sagging – revamped his White House staff by bringing in experienced Washington hands – David Gergen, Leon Panetta – who could “get things done in Washington and the world.”  They helped stop the bleeding, made the trains run on time and are generally credited with stabilizing his administration.

But this most recent version of this media game has an interesting twist. Although Gelb clearly takes aim at almost the entire upper echelon of Obama’s White House staff – particularly the “campaign crowd” – the reaction among the Washington punditry has centered on his advice that Obama fire his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.   This is not surprising – the progressive win of the Democratic Party, particularly the netroots who served as Obama’s shock troops during the campaign, have never been happy with Emanuel.  They view him as a closet Clintonite and political insider who is far too willing to sacrifice progressive ideals – the public option, closing Guantanamo, ending trials by military commissions – as a necessary price to close deals with moderates.   Because Gelb, a longtime Washington foreign policy hand, is not normally associated with this progressive wing, his article provided the ideal cover to renew the attack by the netroots on Emanuel.

In so doing, however, progressives have run into an obstacle.  Emanuel – a veteran of the Clinton White House and a former member of Congress – is an incredibly skilled infighter with strong media connections and, unlike Clinton’s chief of staff Mack McLarty, he is not going to go quietly. Within days of Gelb’s column, Emanuel – or someone close to him – struck back via an extraordinary Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post that essentially laid all the blame for Obama’s failures to date on the President’s failure to listen to Emanuel!  The sheer audacity of this strategy – blaming the President to save one’s job! – led many to immediately dismiss Emanuel as the source of the story.   (Milbank denied that he had talked to Emanuel).  I happen to disagree – I think this is precisely what Rahmbo would do.  Remember First Blood?  Sly Stallone – Rambo, the ex Vietnam/Clinton veteran – is walked across the bridge by local police officers/Obama’s campaign team and told to leave town/resign.  What does he do?  He reverses course and goes on a one-man rampage, annihilating the inexperienced law enforcement officers/campaign team who have no idea what they are getting into when they provoked him/leaked to Gelb in the first place. Only his former commander/Bill Clinton understands, but he is ignored.

Really. You can’t make this  up.  Art predicting life.  I can’t wait for the sequel.

Emanuel’s attack on the President is, in my view, classic Rahmbo: direct and very effective, primarily because the case he makes on his behalf (or that someone makes on his behalf)  is hard to refute.  In several high profile instances, from Guantanamo to military commissions to where to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,  Obama has ended up backing away from his original choices in favor of Emanuel’s preferences.  It appears that pattern will repeat itself with health care, with the final outcome coming very close to Emanuel’s original negotiating end point.

In the aftermath of Milbank’s article, media pundits began taking sides, and a series of columns came out, based on anonymous sources (see, for example here and here) both supporting and attacking Emanuel.  And, in a rather extraordinarily public tongue lashing, the dean of Washington correspondents David Broder rebuked his colleague Milbank for portraying Obama “as a weakling and a chronic screw-up who is wrecking his administration despite everything that his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, can do to make things right.”

It is easy to dismiss this leaking and counterleaking as so much petty nonsense, the product of massive Washington egos engaged in a media food fight.  In fact, this is a crucial exchange that is liable to have important consequences for the Obama presidency.  It is important to realize that members of the White House staff have no independent base of power (unlike, say, cabinet members); all their influence derives directly from perceptions regarding how close they are to the President.  How often do they see him, and does he take their advice?  Emanuel understands only too well that if the prevailing impression in Washington becomes one that views him as losing access to the President, his influence – and therefore his ability to shape policy and run the White House – is over.

That’s why I believe Rahmbo struck back so forcefully, and in such a visible manner.  His ultimate target was not simply the media – it was the President.  Sometimes it’s easier for a senior staff member to say something the President must hear through the media than it is to tell him directly.  It will be interesting in the next several weeks to see if Obama signals his support for Emanuel through a well-placed public remark, photo op or other signaling device.

How will this dispute conclude? I believe that in the battle between the campaign loyalists and Emanuel – Rahmbo will draw first blood.  Obama may have liberal views, but tactically he is a pragmatist who has repeatedly demonstrated a preference for the safe course of action. He showed this early in his presidency, when White House counsel Greg Craig – a strong proponent of closing Guantanamo and of ending military commissions – was quietly removed after it became clear Guantanamo could not be closed immediately, if at all.  At the time, Craig’s firing was blamed on Emanuel:  “This has the fingerprints of Rahm Emanuel somewhere on it,” one expert close to the issue said.”

This tells me that if anyone resigns in the run-up to next fall’s midterms, it will be one of Obama’s campaign aides – Robert Gibbs, Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod  - and not Emanuel.

All presidents and their senior campaign aides take office overestimating their capacity to initiate change.  They soon learn just how weak the presidency is.  Change, if it occurs at all, takes place in very tiny increments.  Emanuel, a Washington veteran with previous White House experience, understood this from day one in a way that Obama and his campaign loyalists have only gradually come to realize.   If he is smart, Obama will retain Emanuel.

This is not to say that Emanuel will serve out the entire first term. But a look at the history of previous chief of staffs suggests his expiration date will probably come after the midterms.  As evidence, in my next post I’ll provide some data on the tenure of previous chief of staffs.

In the meantime, before he makes a mistake and fires Rahmbo, President Obama should consider these fateful words spoken by Emanuel’s alter ego, Sly Stallone:  “Murdock.  I’m…coming…to…get You!”

You can see why no man, no law, no war – and likely no President – can stop him.

Cue the sequel.

Who Won the Health Care Summit Debate?

Who won the health care summit debate?

That was the question media pundits asked in the aftermath of last Thursday’s marathon, 7-hour public health care meeting between President Obama and Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Not surprisingly, there was no consensus answer. Obama partisans thought the President came out ahead because, in his calm, wonkish way, he was able to counter the criticisms leveled against the health care plan by wild-eyed Republicans. As a colleague of mine, (an Obama supporter) put it, “Why do the Republicans bother showing up to these types of events?”  But even more neutral observers thought Obama had showed effective debating skills, in part because he controlled the microphone, a point Dana Milbank made in this Washington Post article. In Milbank’s words, “The forum matched his lawyerly skills — and, less flatteringly, his tendency to act like the smartest guy in the room. Prof. Obama ventured deep into the weeds of health-care policy to contest Republican claims, and, for one day at least, he regained control of the fractious student body that is the Congress.”  At the other end of the spectrum, right-leaning pundits generally took a version of a line that suggested Obama hijacked the forum to push his own talking points and had arrogantly rejected any effort to address Republican policy objections.

I want to suggest that these analyses, which tend to measure the summit outcome in terms of who had the most persuasive argument, or who scored the most debating points, are using the wrong yardstick.  Instead, what we should be asking is: which side came out of that summit closer to achieving its policy and political goals?

From this perspective, the Republicans appear to be the clear winner, and President Obama the loser.  For congressional Democrats – particularly the more moderate wing of the party – the verdict is less clear.

Let me start with the Republicans.  From the opening remarks by Lamar Alexander and Mitch McConnell, the Republican meme du jour was to suggest scrapping the Senate/Obama bill and to start the legislative process over by building on points of agreement between the parties. (Some of those potential points of agreement include malpractice reform, creating purchasing pools of the uninsured, allowing the purchase of insurance across state lines, and preventing insurance companies from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions.)  To their credit, rather than base their line of attack on outlandish charges (death panels!), the Republicans for the most part (and there were exceptions on both sides) came armed with their own set of wonkish talking points that embodied core Republican beliefs regarding the dangers of government regulation, the benefit of market solutions and that focused predominantly on cost-containment. They managed – with some exceptions – to sound quite reasonable. For example, Representative Paul Ryan’s comments were particularly thoughtful and offered a persuasive defense of the Republican positions.

Of course, beginning the process anew is a non-starter with Democratic supporters, including Obama, as the Republicans surely knew.  Not surprisingly, the President used his control of the microphone to shape the debate, and spent much of the summit calmly refuting/addressing the Republican talking points by parroting the Democrat’s own counterpoints.  (Although I wonder if anyone found his use of everyone’s first name in a public forum somewhat patronizing.)  On more than one occasion he acknowledged that there were legitimate differences between the parties before defending the Democrats’ approach. Note that, for the most part, although both Obama and Republicans sometimes skewed the facts, both sides generally stayed away from wild exaggerations and outright misrepresentations.  (This site provides a good fact check of the claims by both sides.)

In this respect this summit provided a useful reminder of the philosophical differences that separate Republicans and Democrats – a difference that is particularly distinct when it comes to health care.

But this was not a philosophical debate with the winner to be judged on his mastery of policy details and clever turn of the phrase.  Nor was it really an effort to find common policy ground. Had both sides been genuinely interested in achieving a real bipartisan solution, Obama would not have unveiled his new health care plan (largely a reprise of the Senate bill) three days before the summit, and the entire proceeding would have taken place behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny.  Instead, both sides went into this determined to win the media coverage and bolster public support. The difference is that the Republicans had the easier task.

Here’s the problem from Obama’s perspective: composite polls at both Real Clear Politics and Pollster.com, as well as the latest Gallup polling, indicate that at this point public opinion is solidly against the current health care legislation in Congress, and it has been that way for several months, with every sign that this opposition won’t budge without dramatic changes to the current legislation. Although polls suggest the public will support individual components of the health care package, when viewed in its entirety, support for the legislation drops precipitously. More worrisome for Obama, the health care summit did almost nothing to assuage the fears of moderate Democrats that if they support the current health care legislation they are going to be washed overboard in a Republican political tsunami come this November.  By making absolutely no overtures to the Republicans, Obama provided the moderates with little to no political cover. He either needed to provide a blueprint that showed how he could bridge the differences with Republicans, or explain to moderate Democrats why supporting an unpopular bill won’t hurt them come November.  He did neither.  More significantly, perhaps, Obama failed to induce any movement toward compromise among the left wing of the Democratic Congressional party.

It is important to realize that Obama’s political interest does not fully mesh with that of Democrats in Congress.  As president, Obama has a stake in achieving a positive health care policy outcome. He wants – needs – to get legislation passed. Even modest insurance reforms would constitute a victory. But as Yale political scientist David Mayhew has long argued, members of Congress are often less interested in achieving substantive policy outcomes and instead satisfied to engage in position taking. In Mayhew’s words, the political payoff for legislators comes by taking the position – not by achieving results.  This means that for many progressive Democrats, it is enough to show their constituents that they took a stance against the Republican efforts to derail health care. There is really no incentive to compromise in order to pass the legislation. For Republicans, of course, the same logic holds: they will be rewarded by articulating opposition to the Democrats’ proposal.  Neither side has a vested interest in necessarily seeing the legislation pass.

This might not necessarily be a problem for Obama if he had the votes to pass health care now.  If he has decided – and I think he has – that the only way health care will pass is by relying solely on his partisans in Congress, he probably decided that the health care summit was primarily for show. The problem with this strategy, however, is that by my admittedly back-of-the-envelope count, the Democrats do not yet have the votes in the House to pass the Senate version of health care legislation. Some 80 Democrats may oppose it either because of the abortion language in the Senate bill or because they are fiscally-conservative blue-dog Democrats, some representing districts won by McCain in 2008, who are uneasy signing on to the Senate plan. Nor, at this point, does it appear that Democrats have the Senate votes to pass health care legislation using reconciliation despite the lower 51-vote threshold. This is because some Democrats are philosophically opposed to using reconciliation for non-budgetary issues, some worry about the political repercussions and some key portions of the health care bill, like abortion, probably can’t be addressed through reconciliation.

Of course, for strategic reasons, it makes sense for wavering Democrats in both chambers who might eventually support the Senate bill to hold back on publicly committing now, in order to leverage their influence.   But at this point, the votes aren’t there.

If Obama wanted to move closer to attracting the additional votes to pass health care, he needed to use the summit to provide a roadmap for getting to yes.  This he did not do – perhaps because there is no bipartisan roadmap.

The bottom line?  Viewed as an academic seminar, Obama did superbly in the health care summit. It was a lawyerly performance, one that would make his Harvard professors proud. As an exercise in political strategery, however, with less than a month left on the legislative calendar before any hope of passing health care ends, Obama lost an opportunity, however slight, of moving closer to achieving a legislative victory.