The recent flap involving the White House chief of staff is another sign that President Obama needs a Paul Volcker of the bipartisan world – - someone whose stature will command instant respect, who can act as a trusted counselor to the President. It may be one of his last chances to avoid an even more costly episode of unintended acceleration into political disaster.
There is a universal law of organizations, especially political organizations, which some of us who have counseled them over the years have come to observe. When the trusted advisor begins to attract the kind of press that puts the boss in a bad light, someone has a problem. And it’s usually not the boss –unless he lets it. The latest in a growing list of issues involving White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel came to light in a column by Washington Post political reporter Dana Milbank, who made the point that “Obama’s first year fell apart in large part because he didn’t follow his chief of staff’s advice on crucial matters.”
Since it is Mr. Emanuel who was supposed to be giving the advice, not many besides he would know whether it was taken or not. In any event, this is not something that is going to assist a White House that is more and more looking like a victim of unintended acceleration into disaster, along with a Democratic Party that seems unable to steer away from calamity. As both the real and symbolic head of the Democratic Party, Mr. Obama needs to think about the picture that is emerging: The Senate loss in Massachusetts. The Governor’s scandal in Albany. The demise of Ways and Means chairman Charles Rangel (D-15th NY). The forced resignation of first-term representative Eric Massa (D-29th NY). A slow motion train wreck involving health care reform also features prominently on the list. Cap and trade seems almost buried and gone. The President’s approval ratings have plunged. The popularity of his party is foretelling of a November blowout. Apart from spending trillions in bailout packages to deal with problems that were not of Mr. Obama’s making, there is pitifully little to show on the domestic side for the first year of his term. On the foreign file, certain presidential trips, like the one to China, seem not to have been worth the cost of the fuel. Of course, not every problem can be laid at the door of the Oval Office. But issues, especially the ones that deal with tricky concepts of ethics and competency like those noted above, can quickly morph in the minds of voters, leaving the occupant of the White House often tarred with the blame. This is especially true during a time of increasing anti-incumbency attitudes and mounting populist sentiment.
As White House chief of staff, a post which many contend is something akin to the role of an unelected prime minister, Mr. Emanuel is not exactly a remote bystander in all of this. Our own views on the subject of his performance and probable early exit were set out late last year. One gets the impression that the growing litany of failures and setbacks is prompting some rewriting of history or at least an unbecoming distancing from the decisions themselves. The fact remains that no chief of staff in any administration worthy of respect would be caught with these kinds of comments connected to him. He has not denied the thrust of Mr. Milbank’s column. It’s another red flag that should not be ignored by a president who has already missed some important ones over the past year.
A positive step for Mr. Obama at this point would be to re-think the merits of the Chicago school he brought with him into the White House. When other presidents have been faced with a loss of momentum, they have called upon respected senior adults to help with turning things around. David Gergen comes to mind in that role for President Clinton. Howard Baker was brought in to bring direction to the Reagan White House after the messy arms-for-hostages debacle. Mr. Obama could use his own version of such a trusted advisor in the West Wing now.
What is needed is a Paul Volcker of the bipartisan political world — someone whose stature will command instant respect inside and outside the White House. The purpose would not be to replace Mr. Emanuel, but it would be the kind of person who could take over that function if it became necessary. With a little luck, he or she even might have developed an ability to restrain their predilection for profanities, bone-headed comments and flights of ego, all of which are becoming too closely tied to the staff of the Obama White House.
Coming into office, Mr. Obama wisely made much of his desire not to become tied to pre-scripted viewpoints or inside-the-beltway thinking. He understood that advice from outside was an important tool for testing the accuracy of the political compass and maintaining a healthy perspective. More of that thinking, both from Mr. Obama and from those who advise him, is needed now if an even more costly episode of unintended acceleration into political disaster is to be avoided.
The President has plenty of challenges and problems hitting him from outside. He does not need them coming from the office next door.