White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is an unprincipled egomaniac who is single-handedly responsible for screwing up the entire Obama agenda. Unless he’s an underrated genius who would have guided the president to a string of legislative victories, if only his voice had carried.
The should-he-stay-or-should-he-go Emanuel show is proving to be among the most durable story lines of the current political season. Edward Luce, Washington bureau chief of the Financial Times, kicked it off in earnest in early February, followed by Washington blogger Steve Clemons, The Daily Beast’s Leslie Gelb, and The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank. The Post slapped a fresh defense of Emanuel on the front page Tuesday—starting the cycle all over again.
"In any White House, the chief always starts off at 6' 4" and usually winds up at 5'9." It is the nature of the job," says Reagan chief of staff Kenneth Duberstein.
It’s an entertaining political pastime—as old as the republic, and not especially meaningful. When things are going well, the president gets the credit. When they’re not, the chief of staff gets the blame. Just ask the other folks who have held Rahm’s job—even those in the (gasp!) Republican Party.
“In any White House, there’s only one agenda and that is the president’s agenda,” says Ken Duberstein, Ronald Reagan’s last chief of staff. “What you are paid for is to make the president’s agenda first and foremost. There is always jockeying. The biggest battles you fight are not with Congress but within the walls of the White House and halls of the administration. That’s true for any White House and any administration. The chief of staff is the javelin catcher, the person who takes the spears so that the president doesn’t have to. It is much easier to attack the chief of staff than to attack the president.”
Duberstein’s successor in the first Bush White House, John Sununu, agrees. “The agenda for what you're going to do is set by the president,” Sununu says. “Yes, the chief of staff can give advice, can try and get the process to the point where he delivers on the president’s agenda. But it’s important to understand that the president sets the tone, the agenda, and the process sometimes is even limited by the president. I think under those constraints a lot of what is being thrown at Rahm is probably not a very fair assessment of whether or not he’s been doing a good job.”
The White House has insisted throughout that it’s standing by its man; asked about the possibility of an imminent shakeup, top aides tend to respond “that’s not how we roll.” As one senior Obama aide puts it, “if health care passes, then Rahm will get a lot of credit. If it doesn’t, he’ll get a lot of the blame. And neither version is the full story.”
The speculation is understandable. After all, White House chief of staff is one of the most stressful jobs in all of politics; burnout is endemic, and turnover is high. The typical lifespan ranges between 18 and 24 months, and Emanuel has already logged 13 (Andy Card, President George W. Bush’s first chief of staff, put in an extraordinary five years in the job—a tenure topped only by Sherman Adams, President Eisenhower’s wingman). The fact that Emanuel left behind a powerful career on Capitol Hill—one that could have led him to one day become House Speaker—fuels whispers that he has higher ambitions, whispers further stoked by the fact that he keeps a hand in politics back home in Chicago.
A shakeup down the road seems all but inevitable; eventually, even the most tight-knit and change-minded of administrations bow to the Washington gods. And the kinds of rally-round stories like the Post’s front-pager carry material risks; Rahm’s supporters, in rushing to his defense, arguably damage the president, by suggesting he’s been foolish not to heed his chief of staff’s sage advice. “You’re a staff person for the president,” says Samuel Skinner, who followed Sununu. “You are supposed to execute the president’s decisions. With that goes the risk that they can’t criticize the president. They will criticize whoever is around him.”
But for now, Emanuel is probably serving too useful a purpose—as a lightning rod for critics on both ends of the political spectrum—to lose. It’s a major reason Skinner once called being chief of staff “the worst job in Washington.”
“In any White House, the chief always starts off at 6’ 4” and usually winds up at 5’9.” It is the nature of the job,” says Duberstein. “It is the pounding you take at every side. You always have to keep your eye on the ball, which is the president’s agenda. You always have the conflict between the pragmatists and understanding that the American people like progress and not Hail Mary passes and the campaign ideologues, who believe that you get all or nothing.”
“Only one person is indispensable in an administration,” Duberstein adds, “and that is the president of the United States.”
Additional reporting by Benjamin Sarlin and Samuel P. Jacobs.
Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.