09.28.10

America's Prime Minister

Rahm Emanuel’s expected departure is more than just your standard White House shakeup: it costs Obama the man with the political grit and muscle to make his dreams come true.

This has been a season of eye-catching farewells: Larry Summers has said adios; Christina Romer has slipped away; and Peter Orszag has departed, too, far from gruntled with the ways of the administration he served. Deep inside the White House, one must hear echoes of the “Ancient Mariner”: Four times fifty living men,/ (And I heard nor sigh nor groan)/ With heavy thump, a lifeless lump,/ They dropped down one by one. Yet the one decampment that will wound the Obama administration more deeply than any of the others is that of Rahm Emanuel, a man who’s been—if you’ll permit some liberties with the concept—Barack Obama’s prime minister for nearly two years.

By “prime minister “I mean that Rahm, expected to exit in short order to run for mayor of Chicago, has been the president’s policy Whip, his enforcer-in-chief, the way James Baker was for George H. W. Bush. Rahm is the man who rolled up his sleeves, clambered onto the coalface of national politics, and took control of digging and extraction, clean-ups and complaints. He cajoled, bullied, clubbed heads together, and kicked grown men in their delicate parts, all in the service of party and administration. In short, he was indispensable for the fulfillment of the Obama Project, a Doer in a team of Dreamers.

A Rahm-like-figure is all the more needed with a president in the Obama mold, it would seem. Obama has a tendency to waffle or backtrack (e.g., the Ground Zero mosque pronouncements); to wring hands (e.g., the surge delay in Afghanistan); and to talk on both sides of a question (e.g., banks are evil/bankers need to be appreciated). There is, to Obama, a milquetoastian core, one that needs perpetual strengthening by an inner-sanctum bruiser. Cut to Rahm.

He cajoled, bullied, clubbed heads together, and kicked grown men in their delicate parts, all in the service of party and administration.

Every successful administration must comprise a mix of Wonks and Enforcers, and without Rahm Emanuel, the Obama administration will be woefully ill equipped in the Enforcer department. To compare with presidents past: President Reagan had Ed Rollins and Lyn Nofziger as his enforcers; David Stockman, Martin Anderson and George Shultz were his wonks. President Clinton had himself, his wife and Jack Lew for wonkery, and James Carville for enforcing/thuggery. Even after the departure of the economics triumvirate, there are still plenty of Wonks in the Obama administration, the president himself being Wonk-in-chief. But Rahm’s departure wrecks the Enforcer quotient.

Richard Wolffe: The Next Rahm?

Full coverage of Rahm Emanuel
If you look past the orneriness of his speech and bluster, Rahm is, in truth, one of the few entirely pragmatic (and therefore sensible) people at the White House, less ideological, more inclined to the broad compromise, and willing to combat the often-perilous advice of Nancy Pelosi. Obama will miss him—and probably more than he thinks.

Looking back over the first two years of this presidency, Obama would be decidedly better off today if he’d sided with Rahm on some of the Big Questions. His health care bill would be less sweeping and statist (displeasing the adamantine left, of course, but any full pleasuring of the left in a democracy is always at the expense of national well-being); and he’d be much, much less of a drag on embattled Democrats in the November 2 election.

Obama accomplished an incredible amount with Rahm—whether or not you like the legislative substance of that accomplishment. Rahm balked at the pursuit of ObamaCare, which he rightly thought would be a debacle; but when asked to enforce, he was integral in rounding up votes for the bill. He knew most of the Democratic legislators personally, had helped a fair number of them get elected, and knew how to stomp hard on the recalcitrant.

Rahm was the best counterweight to Obama’s pack of progressive dreamers. He was the architect of the 2006 Pelosi victory, and it was won by electing a number of “majority makers” in relatively conservative districts—Democratic candidates who “fit” their electors. More than many, he understood the electoral attractions of a heterodox Democratic party. My understanding is that he has often spoken up against some of the more hare-brained things this administration has done, or has wanted to do—earning him the ire and scorn of the David Axelrods and the Valerie Jarretts. He was overruled in many instances, but at least there was someone in the administration making counter-arguments.

Obama is often faulted for seeming aloof, and professorial. That perception will grow more irrefutable soon, should Rahm go and rob him of a more robust leavening. And if, after November, the Democratic numbers in Congress are greatly reduced, the need for an enforcer will be still more pressing than it has been to date. That is when the president will yearn for his “prime minister”—and rue the enforcer’s departure for Chicago.

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)