When Dana Milbank debuted his Washington Post column with a rousing defense of Rahm Emanuel's tenure as chief of staff -- a column that was full of details that weren't previously public -- the media assumed that Emanuel, or a close ally, had fed the columnist the story. "Why Obama needs Rahm at the top" was Milbank's understated headline.
Obama's greatest mistake was failing to listen to Emanuel on health care. Early on, Emanuel argued for a smaller bill with popular items, such as expanding health coverage for children and young adults, that could win some Republican support. He opposed the public option as a needless distraction.
Some of Emanuel's colleagues did not accept Emanuel's denials that he had been the story's source. How could people know that he would ever have a different opinion than the president?
And why would a staff member ever insinuate that the president ought to have listened to him? Emanuel famously has trouble keeping his opinions to himself, and he has not censored himself when talking with friends about his duties and his frustrations. Indeed, he publicly agonized over Obama's offer to make him chief of staff.
This morning, the White House found itself discussing another pro-Rahm article
with much the same theme: Style writer Jason Horowitz asserts that "influential Democrats are -- in unusually frank terms -- blaming Obama and his closest campaign aides for not listening to Emanuel. And this puts the 50-year-old chief of staff in a very uncomfortable position."
If Emanuel encouraging these stories? If he did talk to Milbank -- -- and the White House won't say whether the two had any sort of discussion -- it would seem that Milbank took the thesis one step too far. Emanuel has been unfairly blamed for the political disaster that was Obama's first year. There's a case to be made, even publicly, that Emanuel's ability to influence members of Congress and recruit candidates diminishes with each story blaming him for the president's misfortunes.
So it's one thing to lay out what Emanuel did and didn't do -- which was ostensibly the motivation of those allies who defended Emanuel to Milbank. But the line that Milbank's column crossed -- and the line therefore that Emanuel is assumed to have crossed -- is that while it's sometimes necessary to defend yourself in service of the president, it is absolutely verboten to throw the boss under the bus.
Senior advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, whom the Milbank profile characterizes as too enamored with Obama's messianic qualities to realistically assess his options and provide appropriate guidance, have disagreed with the president about many important issues. Do we know what those issues are? No. They haven't leaked them to reporters, and they haven't told friends or allies who they know are prone to speaking with reporters. (Jarrett is accessible, but she keeps herself at arm's length from most reporters. Axelrod simply will not respond to questions about his own personal feelings about particular debates.)
To the theory that these stories are sanctioned by the president to help him pivot more to the moderate -- and signal to the diehard worshippers that they're going to have to take a back seat -- that's a step too far. It's true that Emanuel has a soft spot in his heart for Blue Dog Democrats -- many he recruited himself as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The Obama White House is capable of strategic leaking, but they wouldn't try to pull off this jujitsu. Is Emanuel trying to unburden himself before stepping down? Unlikely. He told the president he'd stay through the 2010 midterms, and he has no intention of leaving his job.
An irony that may not be apparent to those Friends of Rahm who defend him anonymously is that they've gotten the politics of national security all wrong. It's true that Emanuel has worried about the way the American people would accept a young, first-time Democratic president's first forays into national security, his tangles with the CIA, his decisions to override the will of the American people and try some detainees in federal courts. Even though Americans disagree with the president about specific decisions, they accept that he is a legitimate commander in chief, they give him high marks for combating terrorism, and they feel that his foreign policy has been ably pursued and executed.
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is a contributing editor at The Atlantic
. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One
, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week