On Friday, Rahm Emanuel announced his departure as White House chief of staff, ending the shortest and most hapless tenure in that position since President Bill Clinton replaced his childhood friend, Mack McLarty, in 1994. McLarty is a nice guy who wasn’t tough enough to bring order to Clinton’s White House. Emanuel is a tough guy who wasn’t mature enough to bring good judgment to Obama’s White House.
According to Bob Woodward, national security adviser Jim Jones called Emanuel and his fellow political aides “the water bugs.”
“They flit around,” Jones said. “Rahm gets an idea at 10 a.m. and wants a briefing by 4 p.m., and I will say no” because the work can’t be done that quickly. According to Woodward, Jones believed “the water bugs did not understand war or foreign relations … and were too interested in measuring the short-term political impact of the president’s decisions in these areas.”
But Emanuel turned out to be bad at measuring the political impact of the president’s decisions. Or was his sage political counsel too often rejected by the president, as he has suggested on not-so-deep background to friendly journalists?
Either way, Emanuel was supposed to be the experienced chief of staff to an inexperienced president, the Machiavellian operative aiding an idealistic leader, the wizened strategist protecting Obama from the usual mistakes of a new and callow chief executive. Among those mistakes: yielding too much authority to congressional leaders of your own party, who will tend to be partisan and interest-group driven; surrounding the president with White House staff who quickly become smug, insular and arrogant; and encouraging the president in his fantasy that he was elected because of his remarkable ability to sway the public, not because the party in the White House was unpopular and exhausted.
Emanuel failed to protect Obama from these temptations. He failed to check House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He failed to bring into the White House men and women of substance who could keep the president in touch with public opinion and objective realities. And how many times did Emanuel remind Obama that he, Obama, was no political genius, that he’d won the nomination despite losing most of the big primaries to Hillary Clinton, that he’d run behind congressional Democrats nationally, that his “mandate” had to be carefully nursed and broadened?
The answer is obvious. Emanuel reinforced rather than tempered Obama’s oversize self-confidence. This is clear from the only memorable comment from Emanuel’s tenure, the one he made right after being selected: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” This may well go down in history as the most foolish and damaging pseudo-clever statement ever made by a chief of staff.
The prior recipient of this distinction was the late Donald Regan, President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff from 1985 to 1987, who famously described his job as leading the shovel brigade that cleaned up after the circus elephants. The lead circus elephant about whom Regan was complaining was presumably the president. For this foolish expression of disdain for his boss, among other reasons, Regan was fired.
But Emanuel’s foolish disdain was less for his boss than for his countrymen. Emanuel regarded the public as children who, rattled by the financial crisis, could be steamrolled into welcoming a big-government agenda. This conceit was fatal to Obama, for it led an entire administration and an entire political party to believe that the smart set could easily reshape American reality and spin the American people.
So Emanuel’s fatal conceit was crippling — to Obama. And if President George W. Bush made a mistake by surrounding himself with too many annoying and self-important “Mayberry Machiavellis,” as former adviser John J. DiIulio put it, Obama made a worse mistake by selecting as his chief of staff a bantam-cock pseudo-Machiavelli.
Obama made an error in choosing Emanuel. He now has a chance to do better, and begin to reorient his administration. But first the new chief of staff has a lot of cleaning up to do, as Rahm Emanuel takes his circus parade to Chicago.
William Kristol is the editor of The Weekly Standard, where this article appeared.