The White House is surely a stressful place to work. It’s a high-tempo environment in which disputes are inevitable and where those disputes can often become public. This administration, with its “no drama” motif carried over from the 2008 campaign, has — at least to the outsider — seemed a relatively serene place, with few serious divisions and next to no public wrangling. This administration had been in some sense exceptional in this regard; it’s rare for White House teams to appear outwardly so cohesive and so free of infighting.
Which makes the last couple of weeks interesting. The big discussion point in the beltway press has been Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s characterful Chief of Staff, and the extent to which he is responsible for the lack of progress delivered by the White House to date. First the press began to hammer Emanuel as the reason for Obama’s supposed failures since taking office. Some called for his immediate replacement. Next, a particularly sympathetic piece by Dana Milbank appeared in the Washington Post, which went out of its way to criticise the President for not listening often enough to his Chief of Staff. This led to speculation that Emanuel had orchestrated the favourable counter-commentary, which set off a new wave of gossip about apparent fractures in the administration, and renewed calls for his resignation on the grounds his very presence is deeply unhelpful.
The media is now utterly fixated on the possibility of a rift forming in the White House. This perhaps sells newspapers, but its importance is overstated. What matters more is the question relatively few are asking: has the White House failed to perform better than it has because Obama has been insufficiently pragmatic or insufficiently ideological? I think the answer is the former.
Emanuel is the type of politico journalists love, in that he makes for great column inches. The stories from the Clinton years are the best: posting a dead fish to a pollster who’d pissed him off; on the night of the midterm elections, hammering a steak knife into the table of a Washington restaurant while shouting the names of all the people he intended to destroy in the next two years. This week we also learnt from an excellent Noam Scheiber piece that he has his own distinctive vernacular: some Republicans are “knucklefucks”, Washington is “fucknutsville”. He’s often heard on the phone to friends, signing off with: “Fuck you. See you later. I love you.”
But Emanuel is also a brilliant political operator. The Scheiber piece paints a picture of him as deeply partisan but at the same time so pragmatic as to almost lack principles. That’s a simplification, and it’s important to emphasise the almost — Emanuel only lacks principles in so far as it is politically necessary to water them down in order to pass legislation. Uncompromising ideologues don’t understand this approach. You have principles, they are unwavering, and therefore if you’re “in power” you must accept nothing else. That works in a campaign: there’s a narrative and you stick with it. But this doesn’t work in the White House. It may seem obvious, but the nature of successful divided government is that it inevitably — except in rare circumstances — requires compromise.
Axelrod, Gibbs and co — the team who got Obama elected — are brilliant campaign flacks. And so in the White House they’ve been at their best when on the attack or defending the President. But they are, I think, poor at intra-governmental politics. Axelrod has talked about his role as being one of keeping Obama true to his campaign themes. That’s fine, but that’s also why Obama needs Rahm — because in the end, what you promise in the campaign proves not to be viable in the face of a Congressmen who didn’t get elected by the same voter base as you did.
In the battle to get enough votes to make progress, it isn’t enough to state your position and hold firm. Progress has been made in these last 14 months not just when the White House has been adept at selling itself but also when it has been willing to change its position in shifting sands. And that’s the argument for keeping Rahm Emanuel in post for as long as possible.