As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rahm Emanuel built a Democratic majority in the House. As President Obama's chief of staff, he devised White House strategy toward Capitol Hill. So when the Democrats were going down in flames Tuesday night, where was Obama's chief political architect? Half a continent away, campaigning for himself.
Half a continent away, campaigning for himself in the most pro-Obama place on the planet, largely sheltered from the Republican rubble crashing down on his party all across the country.
And his old colleagues in Washington aren’t too happy about it. Some of them shake their heads in disbelief that Emanuel would bolt at precisely the juncture when the Democrats needed to shape their strategy and message during the homestretch of what everyone knew would be the toughest election cycle in years.
“It was Rahm who always said, ‘We’ve just got to put points on the board,’ and that’s why we have a transactional presidency,” said one former colleague. “The only problem is that Obama is not a transactional politician. It was Rahm’s strategy and then he leaves a month before the election for his own personal political career. It’s extraordinary.”
After a month of running for mayor of Chicago, Emanuel took the time on Tuesday to call some of the defeated candidates, whose political careers he helped launch as part of the Democratic takeover in 2006.
But the fact remains: four years later, his class of ’06 is decimated and Emanuel has left Washington politics altogether.
Several lower-level White House aides say they’re still surprised that Emanuel would so readily follow his personal ambition instead of staying beside the many Democrats he helped elect in the foxhole in the final weeks of the campaign.
“It was Rahm’s strategy and then he leaves a month before the election for his own personal political career. It’s extraordinary.”
A senior Obama aide concedes that Emanuel's congressional strategy was a mistake—that the White House ceded far too much authority to deeply unpopular Democrats on Capitol Hill. But this source says the president had no right to stop Emanuel's personal ambition to become mayor of Chicago, not least because of the dedication he had shown to the White House as chief of staff. The economic headwinds were a far greater factor in the Dems’ defeat, in any event, this source says.
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• Howard Kurtz: How Dems Can Stop the BleedingSome of Obama’s aides say that Emanuel’s departure did damage beyond the results on Election Day. They argue his exit deprived the president of the chance to orchestrate a dramatic staff shakeup in the wake of the poor election results. Instead, a new chief of staff—the low-key Pete Rouse—is already in place, while other aides have long held plans to leave at the two-year mark.
Emanuel’s aides dismiss the criticism as unfounded media hype.
“The timing of Rahm's departure from the White House was based on two factors: Mayor Daley’s announcement that he would not seek reelection and Rahm’s desire to go to every corner of Chicago to have a conversation with voters about the challenges the city faces and the plan for its future,” said a spokesman for Emanuel. “The suggestion that he should have timed his departure to enhance a process story that the media was likely to produce after the election is absurd.”
Emanuel was not entirely absent from the 2010 campaign in Chicago: he deployed his email list for Democrats in Illinois in the final hours. First he sent a message asking for support for Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias. Then he emailed his list asking for support for all Democrats on voting day.
Emanuel’s own race for mayor looks far more encouraging than the prospects for Democrats in Washington over the next year. Emanuel’s biggest potential rival, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, declined to enter the contest last week, leaving the former White House chief of staff at the front of the current pack. And Obama is far more popular in Chicago than he is in much of the rest of the country, so Emanuel’s ties to the president are likely to help more than hurt.
Back in the West Wing, there are likely to be several departures in the aftermath of Tuesday’s elections—some of them also heading to Chicago—but will still be working for Obama. Jim Messina, Emanuel’s deputy, is expected to head up the presidential re-election effort, while David Axelrod is likely to return to his Chicago home early next year to be a strategist for the 2012 campaign.
The economic team inside the West Wing will be almost entirely overhauled, with new appointments likely to come in the next few weeks. The staff changes are expected throughout the West Wing, including the political office, domestic policy and the press office.
But the most significant staff change is likely to have less to do with a departure than an arrival: David Plouffe, who managed Obama’s campaign, is expected to join the White House early in the new year with an expansive brief. Plouffe’s knowledge of the House—and House campaigns—is extensive; he worked as a senior staffer to Dick Gephardt in the late 1990s and was executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2000 cycle. Plouffe is legendary for his single-minded strategic focus and iron discipline—which contrasts sharply with Emanuel’s restless, scattershot style.
As they assess the midterm damage and plot course for the coming, more Republican Congress, one prominent pol who is not drawing disapproval from weary White House aides is the departing House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. “You can’t blame Pelosi for what happened,” the former White House aide said.
“She did everything we asked of her.”
Richard Wolffe is a Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book about the election, Renegade: The Making of a President, was a New York Times bestseller in 2009. His new book, Revival: The Struggle for Survival Inside the Obama White House, is published in November.