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.