White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel has always been a controversial figure–famously profane and short-tempered, and politically speaking a center-right Clinton Democrat. As of late, though, there's been a strange effort–particularly in the Washington Post–to present Emanuel as the confidant whose political advice Barack Obama has too often ignored and who offers a clear path to political rehabilitation. This only makes sense in a Beltway media that views Obama as too far to the left, and in need of Emanuel's pragmatic centrism to pull him back to the middle.
This campaign was kicked off by a February 21 Dana Milbank column in the Washington Post, headlined "Why Obama Needs Rahm at the Top." Milbank wrote: "Obama's first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters. Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter." What advice would that be? Milbank says:
For example, Emanuel bitterly opposed former White House counsel Greg Craig's effort to close the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year, arguing that it wasn't politically feasible. Obama overruled Emanuel, the deadline wasn't met, and Republicans pounced on the president and the Democrats for trying to bring terrorists to U.S. prisons. Likewise, Emanuel fought fiercely against Attorney General Eric Holder's plan to send Khalid Sheik Mohammed to New York for a trial. Emanuel lost, and the result was another political fiasco.
As Matthew Yglesias has noted, the odd thing about this argument is the fact that Obama's foreign policies–whatever you might think of them–are generally more popular than Obama's domestic efforts. So why should we think that not taking Emanuel's advice on security issues is the cause of Obama's political woes?
Milbank also writes that Emanuel was against the public option in the healthcare bill, but Obama listened to "Capitol Hill liberals," with disastrous results. Again, the public option remains relatively popular with the public–despite consistent demonization from the right–so it's not clear why one would think Obama would have fared better without it.
Milbank noted that Emanuel "has set up his own small press operation and outreach function"–leading to some speculation that Emanuel is either directly or indirectly the originator of this if-only-he'd-listened-to-Rahm storyline (Huffington Post, 2/21/10).
And the story lives on in today's front-page Post article (3/2/10), "Hotheaded Emanuel May Be White House Voice of Reason." According to the piece, despite Emanuel's reputation for being loud and obnoxious, "a contrarian narrative is emerging: Emanuel is a force of political reason within the White House and could have helped the administration avoid its current bind if the president had heeded his advice on some of the most sensitive subjects of the year: healthcare reform, jobs and trying alleged terrorists in civilian courts."
Yes, that "narrative" is "emerging"–in the Washington Post. And it's being seconded by the likes of right-wing columnist Jonah Golberg. Debates are raging about who fed the story to Milbank, but that misses the real point: The press always counsel Democrats to move to the right.