Thursday, September 30, 2010

This is Not a Beltway Story

One more thing about the Rahm Emanuel exit.   I've been seeing some comments to the effect that this is one of those Washington stories that no one out in the rest of the country cares about, one of those things that people obsessed with Washington status get obsessive about instead of caring about What Really Matters.

I think that's entirely wrong.  Well, it's true that no one out in the rest of the nation cares about who the White House Chief of Staff might be, and it's true that people in Washington might care about this because they're inappropriately obsessed with status.  And of course the buck stops with the president, and all of that.  But, in fact, the White House Chief of Staff is typically one of the half-dozen or so most important people in the United States government.  People spend a lot of time worrying about who will be president, but the truth is that Ronald Reagan 1981-1984 (James Baker) and 1987-1988 (Howard Baker) was a much better president than Ronald Reagan 1985-1987 (Don Regan).  Bill Clinton from mid-1994 (Leon Panetta, Erskine Bowles, and John Podesta) was an effective president; Bill Clinton before that (Mack McLarty) was ineffective.  Jimmy Carter was a terrible president, and but perhaps things would have been a lot different if he had a CoS like J. Baker, Panetta, or Podesta instead of Hamilton Jordan.  Yes, the presidency is constrained in all sorts of ways, but to the extent that presidents are important, then their chiefs of staff are important.  It really does matter whether the White House runs well or badly.  It can affect who (if anyone) fills open posts in the government, and which options the president even considers, and, well, just the capacity of the presidency to tackle multiple areas of public policy at once.  And whether the White House runs well or badly is going to be the immediate responsibility of the chief of staff.  The press is quite right to be paying attention to this one.


  1. OTOH, do you think we're really going to see much of a difference here- at least, a difference solely attributable to the Rahm/Rouse swap-id-dee-doo? Rouse has been in the West Wing since January 20, and by most accounts, he's in the top echelon of advisors, right there with Rahm and Axelrod. I'd guess the WH's general demeanor reflects his as much as anyone's (besides BHO, of course). And of course, Rouse ran Obama's Senate Office, and I don't see much difference between how that acted and how the WH acts (excepting, of course, the different things they do because they're entirely different beasts...which probably renders that analysis moot).

    I do suppose the White House will be more disciplined now- less focus on Rahm, and probably little focus on any of the other senior advisors, so no real jockeying or sniping in the press. I could see more WH reaching out to the netroots and the left- Obama's Senate office did a lot of that, and it'll no longer have Rahm's intemperate rhetoric to struggle through. I'd also expect to see a more combative WH, but that's really just a result of an energized Republican caucus in Congress.

    In fact, I think most of these things are really just 'cause Republicans will have a much bigger share of Congress, and that (unfortunately) Obama will have to start planning his re-elect right away.

  2. Damn, forgot something.

    As far as this all goes, I wonder if the Summers exit isn't more important. Better economic policy is clearly a bigger deal for the country, as well as Obama's political future. And Goolsbee seems to be a real change- more open to different ideas, as well as a much better communications asset.

    I could also see Axelrod's departure as a big deal, since he's so responsible for the "tone" of the White House. But it doesn't seem like he's actually going to be outside of the President's counsel, just outside of the building.

  3. (1) this is one of those Washington stories that no one out in the rest of the country cares about

    (2) Chief of Staff is typically one of the half-dozen or so most important people in the United States government

    These are not contradictory statements. In fact, by now, it should be fully expected that people "in the rest of the country" will not care one whit about issues that are, in fact, very important!

    I mean, I know you are contractually obligated to say "I think that's entirely wrong" at least once in every blog post, but try not to follow that up with three concrete examples of how you agree with what is "entirely wrong"!

  4. I wouldn't be surprised if there is significantly better understanding out there, especially among people who are politically interested / curious but not glued to political blogs or news sites, about the importance of Chiefs of Staff thanks to seven seasons in which the role wsa dramatized on "The West Wing." In the later (i.e. more recent) seasons in particular, you had Chief of Staff C.J. Craig, an appealing character who got a lot of airtime, and the final season focused on fan favorite Josh Lyman as he ran the campaign and then became C of S to the incoming president.

    Not to overstate this effect, because most Americans still know astoundingly little about the U.S. government, but I'm guessing this is one area at least where general knowledge has risen a bit in recent years instead of fallen.

  5. I'd agree with Jeff- especially because following the West Wing, we had Emmanuel, who was both connected to the show (Josh Lyman was based on him, and everyone noted the parallels between the last couple seasons and Obama's campaign) and an outsized political figure in his own right. He garnered plenty of media attention, to the extent that he's a one-name personality here in IL. Granted, that's a weird sample, but I don't think Bush's first CoS had that kind of personality when there were rumors he was gonna run for Governor in MA.

    I still think there's not ENOUGH understanding of the CoS' role. But it is wider than it might've been in, say, 1994.

  6. Colby -- interesting, I did not realize that Josh was based on Emmanuel. Was Emmanuel a Fulbright Scholar? Because what I remember best about Josh is the immortal line, "I'm a Fulbright Scholar, Mrs. Landringham, I don't 'leer'." :-)

  7. Jeff: I'm a geek. C.J.'s surname is Cregg, not Craig :)

    Regarding the West Wing and public education: for those who were paying attention, *many* important things about US government became both more interesting and more comprehensible over the course of the show, often because Josh explained them to Donna in a sarcastic way. I was an historian rather than any kind of current affairs geek, but I also knew more about US politics than the average bear when I was watching it, and *didn't* know many of the things the show brought to life very well. The roles and responsibilities in the Presidential Branch (inc. CoS, Press Secretary, etc.), the systems in the senate, various aspects of agency and military law, and several bits of constitutional (being a Brit, I didn't actually know about the deplorable 3/5ths clause until I watched the episode Mr Willis of Ohio).

    Re. Josh Lyman; I believe I saw Bradley Whitford comment in an interview somewhere that Emmanuel was one of his inspirations. IIRC it's also been officially denied by someone in the production team, maybe Schlamme? Can't recall.

    Re. West Wing backstories / Fulbright scholarships; Emmanuel does not appear to be a Fulbright Scholar, but given that the West Wing confidently describes Leo McGarry as both Boston Irish and a native son of Chicago, one probably shouldn't read much into that. :)

    Re. filibusters; The Stackhouse Filibuster is one of the finest episodes in the early WW canon, as well as being a first-class example of Mr. Bernstein's repeated theme about glamorisation of the talking filibuster. I found it mostly interesting because it displays a filibuster by a member of the majority party against one of their own bills; a particularly sharp example of the basic idea that the filibuster is intended to empower *individual* senators, not the most recent losing team as a whole.


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