Is Rahm Emanuel both the most politically savvy -- yet fundamentally inept -- White House chief of staff in history? Quite possibly. According to a New York Times Magazine piece earlier this summer, President Obama's staff was constructed precisely to give the administration more of a say in how policies were crafted coming out of the legislative side of Capitol Hill:
The first senator elected directly to the Oval Office since 1960, Obama has an entirely different theory of how to exercise presidential power, and he has consciously designed his administration to avoid [Bill] Clinton’s fate [in 1993 and 1994]. After winning the office with the same kind of outsider appeal as his predecessors, he has quietly but methodically assembled the most Congress-centric administration in modern history. Obama’s White House is run by Rahm Emanuel, a former House leader who was generally considered to be on a fast track to the speakership before he resigned to become chief of staff, and it is teeming with aides plucked from the senior ranks of both chambers.
And so, from Obama’s perspective, passing a health care plan this fall isn’t primarily a question of whether to include an “individual mandate” requiring every American to have insurance or how fully to regulate providers or even how to hit back against “Harry and Louise”–type attack ads, although his aides spend time contemplating all of those things. It’s more about navigating the dueling personalities and complex agendas within his own party’s Congress. Rather than laying out an intricate plan and then trying to sell it on the Hill, as Clinton did, Obama’s strategy seems to be exactly the opposite — to sell himself to Congress first and worry about the details later. As Emanuel likes to tell his West Wing staff: “The only nonnegotiable principle here is success. Everything else is negotiable.”
Alas, based on what's happened over the first six months of the Obama tenure -- and the last few weeks heading into the summer recess, in particular -- for Democrats, any "success" coming out of the Congress at this point is going to look like something akin to "failure."
The president gave an August deadline for health care bills being voted out of Congress. Neither the House nor the Senate met that deadline for floor votes. Instead, different committees in both chambers produced their own bills.
During the summer break, this has given opponents the opportunity to pick and choose problematic items in different bits of legislation -- the end-of-life-counseling, which became warped into "death panels," for instance. Without a comprehensive bill in either chamber that each member of that chamber has voted upon, Democrats are left to defend legislation that doesn't exist.
In short, this White House looks nearly as inept in dealing with a Democratic Congress as did Obama's predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. But having a White House staff experienced in the ways of Capitol Hill was supposed to help a new president navigate these treacherous waters.
And speaking of waters, as liberal California Democrat Maxine Waters pointed out a few weeks ago, Emanuel helped place the House in this awkward predicament with his active recruitment in 2006 of conservative and moderate Democrats to run against Republicans. Emanuel may have thought these candidates were only going to be problematic in cultural and social issues -- abortion, gun control, maybe gay marriage. Instead, they're flexing their muscles on spending and health care as well.
But still, given the profane, take-no-prisoners attitude for which Emanuel is known, how is it that he isn't twisting some arms? After all, while it's true that self-preservation is any politician's most important characteristic, Emanuel can rightly say that they wouldn't be in office in the first place if it wasn't for him. The seeming inability or unwillingness of Emanuel -- and by extension, the White House -- to twist arms will have undoubtedly have long term consequences.
Congress may already have determined that there is little to fear from a president demanding action by a certain time. Congress has now blown off his requests -- and subsequently placed the administration's primary domestic policy agenda in dire peril of total collapse. In turn, this has united and emboldened Republicans to a level that couldn't have been imagined even three months ago.
Given the predicament he has suddenly found himself in, shouldn't President Obama start asking why his supposed strong-man chief of staff isn't kicking congressional tail and taking names?