Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blaming Rahm

Ezra Klein has a typically smart take on why Rahm Emanuel doesn't deserve the grief he's receiving; Ezra argues that Rahm's most important job is getting things through Congress, and that the administration has done more or less about as well as could be reasonably expected. I think that's absolutely right. 

Liberals were disappointed by the stimulus, but I think it's very difficult to see it as anything but a success for the White House.  Let's say that perhaps a better White House operation would have yielded a bill that was maybe 10% better -- but it's also easy to imagine a disaster in which no bill at all passes, and the recession never turns around.  (The same is true with non-legislative measures concerning the financial crisis).  On health care, I think the story is a lot like the stimulus: perhaps a better White House operation yields a better result, but there are a lot of things that could have gone seriously wrong that did not go wrong. 

Moreover, the White House itself appears, as far as I can see, to be operating quite well.  Despite the Becks and the Rushes who are just as aggressive now as they were in 1993, the president made it through the first year with essentially no scandal at all.  That's a major accomplishment, and one that I would not have predicted.  There's very little public squawking between different administration factions, and again based on what information we have as of now the policy-making machinery appears to be in good shape, whether it's in national security, or economic, or other domestic policy.  Of course, that doesn't mean they're always making good choices, but I don't see any indication of a disfunctional White House.  I wouldn't have been able to say the same thing in February 2002, or 1994, or 1978.

And of course the president remains reasonably popular, with his approval rating seemingly stuck right around the 50% mark, which seems pretty good to me given the economy and an opposition that has chosen a rejectionist strategy (something beyond the abilities of the White House to affect).  Of course, I do think that Rahm and the president have made their share of mistakes, but overall I think he's doing a perfectly fine job.  The administration's "woes" are mainly attributable to 10% unemployment and the general difficulty of being president, not to specific mistakes that the White House or Rahm in particular have made.

Why, then is Rahm Emanuel in trouble?  Here's what I said back in August:
Emanuel is by my count the fifth WH Chief of Staff who previously served in elected office. Two (Panetta and Howard Baker) retired on their own terms; two others, Sherman Adams and John Sununu, resigned after scandal, but odds are in both cases the scandal was a result of the enemies created by their style in office rather than a result of particular ethical shortcomings (I'm confident that's true of Sununu, but I'm only really guessing on Adams -- I don't know the history well enough to say).

I think it's an fairly safe prediction that Rahm ends up more like Adams/Sununu than like Panetta/H. Baker. He's most likely an excellent chief of staff, but odds are he's making plenty of enemies, and when he does something dumb they'll all pounce. Just the nature of the job. 
Strong chief of staff, many enemies.   A good part of their job is to play Bad Cop and to let the president be Good Cop.  Presidents have to say "no" to lots of people...and a strong chief of staff is going to be the one who takes the fall for each of them -- he can't pas the blame up, and if he's strong and visible no one is going to buy the idea that someone down the chain is responsible.

So, yup, Rahm's going to take the blame for whatever ills people find in or project onto the White House.  It's structural, not about him in particular.


  1. I'm a little surprised that Obama's approval rating has held up as well as it has, given the state of the economy. 48 percent isn't great, but it's better than anything George W. Bush got in his second term after his first six months.

  2. You can tell this a politicqal scientist blog, because everyone really seems to buy the structural arguments. I do too, and I agree that Obama's popularity is pretty good for 10% unemployment. Mis-steps but no big blunders, and the man does command respect (Question Time with the Republicans was masterful, though perhaps not very important).

  3. It's hard for me to see how you can say Obama's approval ratings have held up well when they declined more quickly/steeply in his first year than in any other president's first year in the modern era. You can blame this on a poor economy, certainly...but only to a point. What about civilian trials for terrorists? The White House's lack of leadership on health care? Cap and trade?

  4. That's not to say I disagree with this post- I think it's a smart one.

  5. Actually, Obama's ratings fell pretty steeply in June and July (before the town hall meetings) and have plateaued since then.

    He did get more of a honeymoon than did George W. Bush (highest rating in 1st six months: 62%) or Bill Clinton (64%). Obama's highest approval rating was in a CNN poll conducted in early February -- 76% -- though that was a bit outlier-ish. But I imagine that was basically due to the historic nature of his inauguration. By late spring, "normal politics" had returned.

  6. What Richard said: steepest decline isn't the right measure, because that was mostly a fall from an unsustainable spike. Given ~10% unemployment, 50% seems to me a bit higher than one would expect. Of course, unemployment isn't necessarily a given, but IMO Rahm doesn't deserve blame for that part of things.


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