White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel may leave this week -- is he jumping a sinking ship?
President Obama, already confronted with his party’s grim November electoral prospects, must now face an exodus of top level advisers from his own administration. The latest to jump ship is Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, whose imminent departure to run for mayor of Chicago is just the latest example of aides distancing themselves from what appears to be a rapidly sinking presidency.
Emanuel’s decision comes on the heels of chief economic adviser Larry Summer’s recent resignation, which followed the earlier departures of budget director Peter Orszag and Council of Economic Advisers Chair Christina Romer. With nearly his entire group of economic advisers headed for the tall grass, the only holdout remains Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.
Given that these individuals have overseen an economy with record unemployment rates and job losses, it is not surprising that Obama’s economic team members would want an early head-start on their post-White House careers. Supporters of the president say, however, it’s not unusual to have staff shakeups prior to an administration’s midterm point. They even go so far as to say it’s actually a good move because the president will be able to take advantage of these departures to bring new energy and clearer strategic thinking to his team.
Others, including some Democrats, conclude differently. They feel the president’s need to surround himself with only longtime associates breeds an inability to accurately assess and accurately respond to the roiling sea of events that have rocked his presidency and which have caused a steep decline in his and his party’s fortunes.
The Washington Post reported one such unnamed Democratic strategist who said, "They miscalculated where people were out in the country on jobs, on spending, on the deficit, on debt. They have not been able to get ahead of any of it. And it's all about the insularity. Otherwise how do you explain how a group who came in with more goodwill in decades squandered it?"
The Obama response has been to place any perceived internal problems, not on the shoulders of unpopular legislation, but instead on inarticulate messaging, which is a strange fallback position for a man considered by his allies to be one of the greatest orators in American political history.
The latest example of this supposition at work was the president’s recent admission that he had failed to convince voters of the wonder of his healthcare reform bill. Speaking to a group of supporters at an event designed to resell the bill to a skeptical public, Obama said, “Sometimes, I fault myself for not making the case more clearly to the country.”
This healthcare awareness campaign follows his Summer of Recovery tour, a six week long public relations trek designed to highlight to Americans the incredible accomplishments his economic policies have created. Apparently, they were unaware that the loss of 2.9 million jobs and a 10% unemployment rate wasn’t obvious enough proof of its success.
Messaging aside, all of the White House departures come at a time when the administration is beset by a series of assaults attacking its very competency. The backdrop to this scene is the coming release of Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars,” an expose on the administration’s first 18 months. Excerpts have already appeared in the Washington Post, and while the White House says it is pleased with the portrayal of the president, others say the early returns seem to portray an administration out of its depth.
Obama’s problems have gotten so bad that even Jimmy Carter felt compelled to come to his defense. Unfortunately for Obama, it was to accuse all his critics of being fueled, not by honest objections to his policies, but rather by racism. Already under criticism for its use in overplaying the race card, the White House now has to assure already skeptical voters that their opposition to Obama doesn’t necessarily qualify them for membership in the Ku Klux Klan.
Carter then offered his own helpful comparison of the Obama White House to his own administration. In an interview promoting his newly released book "White House Diary," Carter said, “I overburdened Congress with an array of controversial and politically costly requests. Looking back, I am struck by how many unpopular objectives we pursued.”
In an apparent tag-team effort, Carter’s Vice-President, Walter Mondale, told The New Yorker magazine that there were striking similarities between both administrations saying, “We’re going through this drama again. November might be a disaster.” The last thing Obama needs at this point is to have his presidency compared to what is widely believed to be the worst in modern times. When that happens, it’s probably time to acknowledge the true depths of your problem.
Now, to be evenly balanced, it doesn’t require Jimmy Carter or Walter Mondale to point out the parallels between the two administrations when the handwriting on the wall is clear to any person who either lived through the Carter years or who possesses a modicum of historical knowledge. The similarities between the two are somewhat eerie.
Both men share personal characteristics of iciness and a penchant for being thin-skinned; both were swept into office on a wave of transformational politics that promised to change the tenor of current political dialogue; both inherited bad economies with policy solutions that inflamed the problem; and both men have a common need to scapegoat their own failings.
However, with so much in common, there is one difference between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. Carter faced a 1980 primary challenger to his run at a second term in the guise of the late Senator Edward Kennedy. While a potential opponent has not yet risen, the fallout from the impending election disaster may leave Obama confronted by that painful reality.
If Democrats truly crash in November and lose the House and/or the Senate, the finger pointing will begin in earnest. At the top of the blame list will be Barack Obama, who will need to answer for his part in the electoral debacle. If he does desire another term and makes a run in 2012, there will be no shortage of challengers willing to take a run at the crown.
For Obama, this threat could come from either wing of the Democratic Party: Centrists appalled at the runaway progressive ideology enmeshed in the party and liberals angered at what they perceive to be Obama’s limited commitment to enact their full agenda,
Of course, all of his political fortunes can still turn around. Two years to recover is an eternity in American politics and much will depend on how Republicans handle their anticipated electoral success and who heads their 2012 presidential ticket. Still, for a president who entered office with near stratospheric approval numbers and a party firmly in control of all levers of government, the plummeting of his political fortunes has been quite breathtaking.
If things continue at this pace, Barack Obama may have one last final thing in common with Jimmy Carter: a one-term presidency.