Is Rahm Emanuel Still a Genius?

When President Obama selected Rahm Emanuel to serve as White House Chief of Staff, most commentators hailed it as a coup. We were told that Rahm was brilliant, and that his love for brass-knuckles politics would prove invaluable in moving the president’s agenda through Congress. As a veteran of the Clinton White House, he would be sure not to repeat the mistakes Clinton made early in 1993. And because Rahm had come from the House of Representatives, and had been DCCC chair when the Democrats won a majority in the House, scores of Democrats would listen to him. Love him or hate him, all were confident that Rahm would be effective.

Is it too early to ask if something went wrong?

Just 6 months into President Obama’s term, his approval ratings are sinking. Administration officials are apparently split on how to address a faltering economy, with some wanting more ‘stimulus’ spending, and others in favor of staying the course. The American people are losing faith in Obama’s ability to provide leadership to fix the economy, and polls show they’re already growing more willing to put Republicans back in charge.

But beyond that, the White House is seeing its agenda bogged down in Congress – because of the cost of Barack Obama’s first (and so far, his only) major domestic initiative.

Congress approved Obama’s ‘stimulus’ package because it was necessary to ‘save’ the economy. Moderate Democrats expressed concerns with such a massive package of deficit spending, but went along because a popular new president told them it was essential. Now the American people worry that we are too deep in debt to spend much more. They doubt the administration’s ability to accurately judge the results of their actions. And they are worried because they believe Democrats in Washington are trying to do too much, too fast. As a result, Congress is basically frozen into inaction while considering cap-and-tax, health care reform and son of porkulus. And behind the scenes, they are also unsure how to proceed with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, Card Check, and immigration reform.

Simply put, Obama has too many balls in the air. He has accomplished nothing of substance (except spending a boatload of money to no good effect). And he has significantly undercut his credibility by overpromising on this first, massive initiative. If he had opted to tackle health care instead of the ‘stimulus,’ or had compromised early and passed a smaller stimulus, there would not be such a decline in faith in the White House. There would be more political capital to push other bills. And with less concern about the deficit, there would be more money to do so.

So in addition to being a massive economic failure, the porkulus was a massive political failure as well.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but Rahm was front-and-center when it comes to avoiding a mess like this. How did he let the White House tie its credibility to a terrible bill like porkulus, and then not get anything else done before it became clear it was not working? And didn’t he recognize the importance of not having somewhere between three and six major initiatives being debated in Congress at one time?

This is a failure of vision and leadership on the big picture. If I had voted for the Obama agenda, I would be pretty worried and pretty angry.