President Obama has a problem in his White House, and it is not Rahm Emanuel.
Washington's current parlor game focuses on how long chief of staff Emanuel will keep his job given Obama's sagging poll numbers. Emanuel is a shrewd politician skilled at winning elections. He has solid White House experience as a Senior Advisor to President Clinton.
Obama's White House suffers not because of Emanuel but from overly parochial and partisan instincts that are driving Independent voters almost two-to-one into the Republican camp. While Republicans are presently basking, if they are smart, they will realize that they still need to earn the public's trust.
Obama's top advisers come from Chicago: the First Lady, Emanuel, David Axelrod, and Valerie Jarrett. They are all extremely smart and talented individuals, but their Washington experience is limited. Nothing revealed these limitations more than the president's trip last year to Copenhagen to urge selection of Chicago for the 2016 summer Olympics. Obama should never have made this trip; it was a harbinger of future problems.
Madrid, Rio, and Tokyo, were fierce competitors with Chicago. South America had never hosted any Olympic games, and few objective observers would have given Chicago an edge. The First Lady was born in Chicago (Obama wasn't), and sending her to Denmark would have been fine. If Chicago had been selected, then she and the president would have been seen as winners. Chicago didn't even come close, and the rejection arrived shortly after Air Force One had left Danish airspace.
This abrupt failure -- albeit relatively trivial -- sent a non-trivial signal about the president's persuasiveness. That signal was perceived as one of weakness -- at home and throughout the world.
Obama tries to be everywhere: he is overexposed in the media, travels abroad and returns with paltry results, and sits patiently through nearly seven hours of a White House summit with Congressional leaders on health care. That summit did not produce a bipartisan consensus on health care, and it showcased the president essentially chairing a Washington think tank seminar.
Ronald Reagan would never have been so omnipresent. As a former actor, Reagan knew when to quit. He could be simultaneously affable and aloof. That distancing also created an air of mystery and uncertainty -- among those on his immediate staff as well as leaders in Moscow. With Obama, there is no mystery, "no drama," as some like to say.
If the president obtains House passage of the Senate health care bill, accompanied by a subsequent reconciliation vote in each chamber, the prospects for future bipartisanship in Congress will be slim. If he fails to secure passage, he will need bipartisan support to govern for the remainder of his term.
When President Clinton faced a similar challenge after his health care bill collapsed, he turned to David Gergen who helped reposition him and his administration to work with Republicans to pass welfare reform and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Of course, Clinton had little choice because Republicans captured the House after the 1994 midterm elections.
President Obama now faces a dilemma whether he wins or doesn't win on health care. Bipartisanship between now and November is extremely uncertain, as Republicans will be emboldened to test the limits of Independent voters' dissatisfaction with the Democrats. The GOP does not consider the recent elections in New Jersey, Virginia, and Massachusetts as flukes. The President needs wise counsel on how he can best reposition himself to work with Republicans. He can launch that search process now, or on November 3.
Charles Kolb is president of the nonpartisan, business-led Committee for Economic Development in Washington, D.C. He served in the George H.W. Bush White House as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. The above views are solely the author's.
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