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President Obama Day 386: What's happened to him?

February 9, 2010 |  2:28 am

Democrat Obama White House aides Rahm Emanuel, Valeria Jarrett, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs

A favorite story about Chicago politics involves Roman Pucinski, who served six long terms of political apprenticeship in the Washington minor leagues of the U.S. House of Representatives before the Windy City's vaunted Democratic political machine allowed him to step up and serve on the City Council.

The late Pucinski then served for 18 years as a loyal operative assigned to the 41st Ward (of 50).

It's always useful for Chicago pols to have White House connections if, say, they'd like to dispatch someone famous to fly off to Copenhagen to lobby the International Olympic Committee for their city's 2016 summer games bid.

But the Chicago Daley machine, which is actually a ruthless coalition of urban Democratic factions united by the steel reinforcing rods of self-interest, didn't much care about this Barack Obama fellow before, as long as he was quiet, obedient and headed on a track out of town. How he acquired a reform label coming out of that one-party place is anyone's guess.

But now that the sun has risen on the 386th day of the Obama White House, many political observers are coming to see that the ex-state senator from the South Side is running his federal administration in Washington much the way they run things back home: with a small....

...claque of clout-laden people from the same school who learned their political trade back in the nation's No. 3 city, named for an Indian word for a smelly wild onion.

That style is tough, focused, immune to any distractions but cosmetic niceties. And did we mention tough. A portly, veteran Chicago alderman once confided only about 40% jokingly, that he had taken up jogging to lose weight but quickly gave it up as boring because "you can't knock anyone down." That's politics the Chicago way.

For instance, remember how much we heard all last year about the need for healthcare legislation before early August, before October, before Thanksgiving, before Christmas, before the State of the Union? And how spanked the White House was by the Massachusetts Senate upset that Obama said his laser-vision for 2010 was on jobs and the economy?

So, what did he announce during a Super Bowl interview? More healthcare meetings, designed to politically box Republicans into the No-Nothing corner.

In the last few days at least three major outlets have published well-informed evaluations of Obama's first year in office. All are well worth reading. The dominant themes: disappointment and disillusionment with the Chicago way.

In one respect it's not surprising that a capitol city with its own style of take-no-prisoners politics should find a professed outsider's style of smoother-spoken take-no-prisoners discomforting.

But now, no less than the Huffington Post headlined its Obama evaluation by Steve Clemons: "Core Chicago Team Sinking Obama presidency."

The devastating Financial Times report by Edward Luce: "A fearsome foursome"

And the Washington Post story by Ann Gerhart: "A year later, where did the hopes for Obama go?"

The Post story focuses on a handful of Obama supporters, so fiercely motivated and hopeful in 2008 and through the inauguration, now largely drifting back to normal lives lacking fulfillment of so many promises.

The other two fascinating accounts examine Obama's close-knit team of Chicagoans: confidante Valerie Jarrett, who's so intelligent she once hired Michelle Obama; Rahm Emanuel, the diminutive, acid-tongued chief of staff with overwhelmAxelrod and Obamaing energy and ambition; David Axelrod, the ex-Chicago Tribune politics reporter-turned-consultant who's been coaching Obama forever; and Robert Gibbs, who isn't from Chicago but that's OK because he's only the mouthpiece and the others keep a close eye on him.

Clemons focuses on how dead-on the Luce piece is and how the FT Washington bureau chief had to assiduously hide his sources as everyone was properly so fearful of retribution from the quartet around the mayor, er, president.

And Clemons attributes the lack of online link love to the Luce item Monday to the same fears among D.C. journalists dodging disfavor from the same four.

Quoting "administration insiders," Luce says "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."

And both articles note, accurately, how savvy cabinet secretaries like Kathleen Sebelius at Health and Human Services and Ken Salazar at Interior have been marginalized because putting a media face on the Obama Oval Office can only be entrusted to the likes of Gibbs and Axelrod.

Another Luce source talks about the difference between campaigning, which is easier, and governing, which is the ultimate goal but takes a more refined skill-set:

'There is this sense after you have won such an amazing victory, when you have proved conventional wisdom wrong again and again, that you can simply do the same thing in government,' says one. 'Of course, they are different skills. To be successful, presidents need to separate the stream of advice they get on policy from the stream of advice they get on politics. That still isn’t happening.'

Also noted, how most everything coming out of the executive office is filtered through a political prism above all. i.e. the Afghanistan troop surge speech that touched all the political bases in 4,582 words without once saying "victory."

Warning that Obama needs to take action quickly, Clemons adds that needed advice from a broader range of advisers "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."

David Gergen, who helped guide Bill Clinton out of not dissimilar troubled waters, tells Luce: "There is an old joke. How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one. But the lightbulb must want to change. I don’t think President Obama wants to make any changes.”

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Photo: White House (Emanuel, Jarrett, Axelrod and Gibbs); Associated Press.

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