No-drama Obama was bound to get fireworks when he chose the expletive-spewing, hotheaded, never-at-rest Rahm Emanuel to be his White House chief of staff. The only questions were when — and how big.
The answers are now — and pretty large, by inside-the-Beltway standards, anyway.
And they're happening at a particularly unpleasant time in Barack Obama's presidency, which is struggling with problems in terrorist policy, health care reform and other matters that have the president in political hot water and down in the polls.
The strange, only-in-Washington story began unfolding about two weeks ago when a column in The Washington Post asserted that Obama's "first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters."
The piece advised a 180-degree turn from the recent trend of blaming Emanuel for Obama's woes and of calling for the former congressman from Illinois to go. Instead, it said, blame others in Obama's orbit who are too "in love with the president" to advise him wisely on such things as health care strategy, the closing of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and how and where to try accused Sept. 11 terrorists. Blame Obama himself for not listening more to Emanuel, columnist Dana Milbank wrote.
Then this week came another Post story saying basically the same thing, based largely on interviews with Democrats on Capitol Hill. This was harder for the White House to shrug off, because it was not an opinion piece but in the news section — on the front page, no less.
Suddenly, the Obama White House had to deal with a narrative that some (though it's still unclear who) think Obama's chief of staff is smarter than the president, an awkward development in Washington's deeply ingrained tradition of aides staying behind the scenes and not upstaging the boss.
At the least, it creates an embarrassment and a distraction at a perilous time. And it belies Obama's own prized no-drama culture, where neither dirty laundry nor disagreements are aired and theatrics aren't tolerated. At worst, it sets in motion a dynamic that could lead to shakeups and further doubts about Obama's leadership.
So some angst behind the scenes at the White House was no surprise.
Publicly, however, the White House stood firmly behind Emanuel. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Tuesday dismissed as "parlor games" the talk of a White House divided into camps or of Emanuel facing the prospect of being ousted.
"Knowing most of what goes on here, I don't subscribe to all of it or a lot of it," he said. "He absolutely has the president's confidence."
Several current and former White House aides said Emanuel, despite his often passionately delivered opinions, is, once a decision is made, among the most loyal and energetic about making it happen. The president was said to view the spate of stories with a long view, that he and his team would rise — or fall — together and that Emanuel is too valued to cut loose.
Emanuel has been open about harboring political ambitions beyond the White House, specifically to run for Chicago mayor. But Gibbs deemed it unlikely that the chief of staff is feeding the stories himself to protect his reputation from its recent battering, particularly from the Democratic Party's liberal wing, which feels abandoned by Obama on many issues.
"We all give advice to the president on a daily basis," Gibbs said. "The president makes decisions and we move forward. When we move forward, nobody moves forward with more determination than the chief of staff."
Some indications point to the stories being driven by Emanuel loyalists, becoming increasingly upset at the criticism aimed at him lately over Obama's sputtering agenda, say those inside and outside the White House. A large number of Democratic lawmakers, particularly centrists and conservatives, feel a huge debt to Emanuel from his days as chairman of the Democratic campaign committee in 2006, when he played an instrumental role in restoring his party to power after 12 years in the minority.
Many of those same Democrats now fear for their chances in November's midterm congressional elections. As is common at this stage in an election cycle, they are looking for more help from Obama and someone to blame if they lose.
And yet, there is no doubt that Emanuel's own pugnacious, loquacious style is to blame, at least indirectly if not more.
Emanuel is known as a fierce competitor, who strikes back — hard — when hit.
He also fairly openly shares where he stands on issues, and where that has differed with the president.
For instance, it's well-documented that Emanuel argued internally against trying accused Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four of his alleged henchmen in civilian court in New York. That decision, by Attorney General Eric Holder, invited a firestorm of criticism for Obama, has now been put on hold and may be reconsidered.
Back when the cool-tempered Obama first offered him the job, Emanuel surprised many by publicly and repeatedly sharing his reluctance to do so — because it would require him to give up his goal of becoming House speaker and would cost him time with his wife and three children. Such admissions of doubt when a president comes calling, which Emanuel still talks about, are almost unheard of.
The man nicknamed "Rahmbo" has been no stranger to controversy, either. Recently, he apologized for using the word "retarded" to describe liberal activists whose tactics on health care he questioned.
Obama has not been shy about getting rid of aides; he doesn't employ loyalty just for the sake of it.
But Obama has welcomed disagreement within his staff and has shown he is willing to tolerate a lot to get the benefit of Emanuel's considerable legislative and political talents. So the word is that Emanuel isn't going anywhere. For one thing, he is regarded as essential to shepherd health care reform to a conclusion.
And that, said those close to the White House, is the way out of this mess.
If health care is passed, the bad stories and the finger-pointing stop and Obama moves on to other issues.
If health care fails, there will be more bad stories and finger-pointing — common in times of trouble for any president. And they're likely to be not just about Emanuel, but others in the White House as well.
Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this story.
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