Core Chicago Team Sinking Obama Presidency

Serious critiques of the internal game around Obama have to be read -- because Obama is not winning. He is failing, and people need to consider why.
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(Obama's Core Team at press conference on Obama administration's 100th day; photo credit: Bill O'leary, Washington Post)

Financial Times Washington Bureau Chief Edward Luce has written a granularly informed insider account about those who hold the keys to the inner most sanctum of Obama Land -- Rahm Emanuel, Robert Gibbs, Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod.

It's a vital article -- a brave one -- that includes "dozens of interviews with his closest allies and friends in Washington."

Most are unnamed because the consequences of retribution from this powerful foursome can be severe in an access-dependent town. John Podesta, president of the powerful, administration-tilting Center for American Progress, had the temerity and self-confidence to put his thoughts publicly on the record. But most others could not.

Mark Schmitt, executive editor of the liberal magazine the American Prospect, wrote that "Luce has written what seems to me the best and most succinct rundown of what's gone wrong in the White House, with particular attention to the role of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel." But some of the big aggregators out there -- Mike Allen at Politico and ABC's The Note among others -- didn't give Luce's juicy and lengthy essay any love.

Why not? Allen is a good friend of mine and tries to keep a good balance between tough-hitting political stuff, but also goes out of his way to give strokes to those in the White House he can -- particularly "Axe" -- who is a regular in Mike's daily Playbook. I try to do the same, to be honest, and have a particular thing for Bill Burton's wit and was pleased to see Rahm Emanuel giving David Geffen rather than Rick Warren lots of hugs during the Inauguration eve fests.

But this Luce piece is unavoidably, accurately hard-hitting, and while many of the nation's top news anchors and editors are sending emails back and forth (I have been sent three such emails in confidence) on what a spot-on piece Luce wrought on the administration, they fear that the "four horsepersons of the Obama White House" will shut down and cut off access to those who give the essay 'legs.'

But in the too regularly vapid chatter about DC's political scene, serious critiques of the internal game around Obama not only deserve review on their own merits but have to be read -- because Obama is not winning. He is failing and people need to consider why.

Any serious survey of the Obama administration's accomplishments and setbacks over the last year has to conclude that the administration is deeply in the red.

If current trends continue, this once mesmerizing Camelot-ish operation will be be seen in the history books as the presidential administration that -- to distort slightly and inversely paraphrase Churchill -- never have so many talented people managed to achieve so little with so much.

The entire article needs to be read, but to set the stage, here is the beginning of Ed Luce's portal into the heart of today's Obama machine:

At a crucial stage in the Democratic primaries in late 2007, Barack Obama rejuvenated his campaign with a barnstorming speech, in which he ended on a promise of what his victory would produce: "A nation healed. A world repaired. An America that believes again."

Just over a year into his tenure, America's 44th president governs a bitterly divided nation, a world increasingly hard to manage and an America that seems more disillusioned than ever with Washington's ways. What went wrong?

Pundits, Democratic lawmakers and opinion pollsters offer a smorgasbord of reasons - from Mr Obama's decision to devote his first year in office to healthcare reform, to the president's inability to convince voters he can "feel their [economic] pain", to the apparent ungovernability of today's Washington. All may indeed have contributed to the quandary in which Mr Obama finds himself. But those around him have a more specific diagnosis - and one that is striking in its uniformity. The Obama White House is geared for campaigning rather than governing, they say.

In dozens of interviews with his closest allies and friends in Washington - most of them given unattributably in order to protect their access to the Oval Office - each observes that the president draws on the advice of a very tight circle. The inner core consists of just four people - Rahm Emanuel, the pugnacious chief of staff; David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, his senior advisers; and Robert Gibbs, his communications chief.

Two, Mr Emanuel and Mr Axelrod, have box-like offices within spitting distance of the Oval Office. The president, who is the first to keep a BlackBerry, rarely holds a meeting, including on national security, without some or all of them present.

With the exception of Mr Emanuel, who was a senior Democrat in the House of Representatives, all were an integral part of Mr Obama's brilliantly managed campaign. Apart from Mr Gibbs, who is from Alabama, all are Chicagoans - like the president. And barring Richard Nixon's White House, few can think of an administration that has been so dominated by such a small inner circle.

"It is a very tightly knit group," says a prominent Obama backer who has visited the White House more than 40 times in the past year. "This is a kind of 'we few' group ... that achieved the improbable in the most unlikely election victory anyone can remember and, unsurprisingly, their bond is very deep."

John Podesta, a former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and founder of the Center for American Progress, the most influential think-tank in Mr Obama's Washington, says that while he believes Mr Obama does hear a range of views, including dissenting advice, problems can arise from the narrow composition of the group itself.

To hit some of the later highlights, Luce speaks with political giants 'inside' the Obama tent who suggest that Rahm Emanuel lost track of the importance of communicating to the public about health care, despite some success in legislative deal-making. While Luce doesn't explicate this topic, I would also suggest that Rahm pulled the plug on shuttering GITMO, which had a good plan on paper, but was unwilling to move the political wheels to get that done -- not understanding that this was a key pillar of progressive political support for Obama.

The article goes on to document how people like Health Secretary and former Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius were kept off television -- along with others like Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Add to this others that Luce does not name -- including important voices like Paul Volcker and Austan Goolsbee on Obama's economic team, who saw their public voices choked off by a media-dominating Lawrence Summers with support from Robert Gibbs and Rahm Emanuel.

In a particularly cutting depiction of Emanuel, Luce writes:

Administration insiders say the famously irascible Mr Emanuel treats cabinet principals like minions. "I am not sure the president realises how much he is humiliating some of the big figures he spent so much trouble recruiting into his cabinet," says the head of a presidential advisory board who visits the Oval Office frequently. "If you want people to trust you, you must first place trust in them."

I will never forget when Rahm Emanuel laughingly responded well within earshot of several national media (and this blogger/writer) at an Inaugural bash to an inquiry if Emanuel was enjoying putting Tom Daschle on the basement floor of the White House in a non-descript office pretty far from the president. Emanuel joked back glibly that Daschle had to be happy with any office in the White House because "any square inch of real estate inside the White House -- no matter where it is -- is more valuable than anything outside it."

Compare this flippant meanness and hubris to the tone of Obama campaign manager David Plouffe's depiction of the campaign in Audacity to Win: The Inside Story and Lessons of Barack Obama's Historic Victory and one couldn't imagine more different worlds. Plouffe describes a campaign with a "no assholes" rule -- one where good policy would be pursued -- not just what was a winning political hand.

Luce's brief paints a picture of even a well-meaning, policy-focused "Obama the man" being warped out of shape by "Obama the team." Recounting some of the antics during Obama's November China trip, Luce recounts:

The same [dismissal of his key policy advisers in lieu of his political entourage] can be observed in foreign policy. On Mr Obama's November trip to China, members of the cabinet such as the Nobel prizewinning Stephen Chu, energy secretary, were left cooling their heels while Mr Gibbs, Mr Axelrod and Ms Jarrett were constantly at the president's side.

The White House complained bitterly about what it saw as unfairly negative media coverage of a trip dubbed Mr Obama's "G2" visit to China. But, as journalists were keenly aware, none of Mr Obama's inner circle had any background in China. "We were about 40 vans down in the motorcade and got barely any time with the president," says a senior official with extensive knowledge of the region. "It was like the Obama campaign was visiting China."

One wonders why Valerie Jarrett was on the trip in any case. As head of public engagement for the White House, it would seem she should have a rather full plate meeting the demand of the many groups around the United States that want to feel like they are connecting with and being heard by the Obama White House.

I see Valerie Jarrett a lot -- often at Georgetown's power crowd restaurant, Cafe Milano.

In fact, one night when I was at the annual gala dinner of Jim Zogby's Arab American Institute -- an important evening for leading figures from the Arab-American community to connect with the Washington political establishment -- Jarrett was on the docket to be the major keynote speaker of the entire night.

Jarrett, however, had to modify her schedule because of what she said were "urgent duties that were calling her back to the White House right away" and so she gave a few minutes of laudatory comments toward the Arab American community before most people were in their seats between reception and sitting down for dinner. My hosts that evening said that they were mainly interested in hearing her and asked me if I wanted to depart with them for Cafe Milano. I said sure -- and wow -- there Ms. Jarrett was.

Maybe she did stop at the White House between the JW Marriott and the Georgetown hot spot. That was possible -- but it would have had to be a nano-second drop by.

Compare this to President Bill Clinton giving the major keynote remarks in March 1995 at the Nixon Center's opening conference in Washington at the Mayflower Hotel when Clinton came early for a VIP reception, stayed for the entire sit down dinner, gave a 90 minute long speech, and mingled with folks after.

People can tell when you are focused on them in a serious way -- and when you are giving them a cursory glance.

There are things that happen in politics -- and Valerie Jarrett does have important duties and a schedule that is probably always in constant flux -- so I don't want to take my critique too far.

But one thing essential to understand is that the kind of policy that smart strategists -- including by people like National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other advisers like Denis McDonough, Tom Donilon, James Steinberg, William Burns, (previously Gregory Craig) -- would be putting forward is getting twisted either in the rough-and-tumble of a a team of rivals operation that is not working, or is being distorted by the Chicago political gang's tactical advice that is seducing Obama towards a course that has not only violated deals he made with those who voted him into office but which is failing to hit any of the major strategic targets by which the administration will be historically measured.

President Obama needs to take stock quickly. Read the Luce piece. Be honest about what is happening. Read Plouffe's smart book again. Send Rahm Emanuel back to the House in a senior role. Make Valerie Jarrett an important Ambassador. Keep Axelrod -- but balance him with someone like Plouffe, and get back to putting good policy before short term politics.

Set up a Team B with diverse political and national security observers like Tom Daschle, John Podesta, Brent Scowcroft, Arianna Huffington, Fareed Zakaria, Katrina vanden Heuvel, John Harris, James Fallows, Chuck Hagel, Strobe Talbott, James Baker, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and others to give you a no-nonsense picture of what is going on.

And take action to fix the dysfunction of your office.

Otherwise, the Obama brand will be totally bust in the very near term.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons

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