THE BLOG
05/10/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ignore the Media's Rahm Obsession

I have forced myself to read the late flood of profiles, stories and columns about Rahm Emanuel and I can confidently pronounce: they are all deadly dull. Do not read them! While they offer some insight into the workings of the Obama presidency, they're simply not interesting. They reveal more about the media than our current political predicament.

It apparently started in February when Dana Milbank penned a Rahm-boosting column.  Then over the past week we got another pro-Rahm piece from the Washington Post, which self-consciously regurgitated the opinions of Emanuel defenders into an "emerging narrative" that we shouldn't blame him for the White House's political problems. And in recent days we got longer, more ambitious profiles from Noam Scheiber of The New Republic and Peter Baker of The New York Times. (If there are others, I don't want to hear about them.)

Having read all of this, here's the takeaway: Rahm Emanuel is loyal to Obama and a team player. He takes direction from the president and doesn't freelance. He sometimes argues for more "pragmatic" positioning on issues, going for incremental wins at the expense of the dicier long ball. Sometimes Obama follows this advice, sometimes he doesn't. (And on health care reform, Obama appears to have done both.) He swears a lot. He is all business. He is also 50 years old. And thin.

"At 50, Emanuel has the lean, taut look of a lifelong swimmer, with broad shoulders and distractingly prominent quadriceps." - Scheiber

"At 50, he has the coiled energy of aides half his age, still as wiry thin as he was during his improbable days as a ballet dancer." - Baker

Why is all of this so formulaic and un-illuminating? When I read, say, a New York Times Magazine piece, I expect to be surprised and provoked, not anesthetized. The inner workings of any White House offer dramatic material, personal conflicts, history in the making. Past chiefs of staff - John Sununu and Don Regan come to mind - stirred up some great controversies. That haughty pair were excellent villains inside the West Wing and in the media, and their hubris eventually got them canned.

I don't think this is the fault of the journalists. The material they're working with just isn't that great. Emanuel is certainly obnoxious, mean, relentless and personally ambitious. But he doesn't seem especially hubristic. It's more the methodology. There is an expectation that personalities can explain politics and policies. And that's okay as far as it goes. When you're talking the president and his top aide, personalities and proclivities toward pragmatism or boldness matter.

During the Clinton presidency there was so much improvisation and political tacking that those factors were very important. Heck, the Clinton presidency ultimately became all about the First Couple's respective personalities and bizarre doings inside the West Wing.

But circumstances changed during the Bush presidency. The ingrained media focus on personalities and individual action (Bush the guy folks wanted to have a beer with, Rove the evil genius, etc.) mostly missed what was really going on -- the systematic politicization of previously-insulated customs and institutions (war and the Justice Department, for example) at the expense of basic competence.

Now, the political system has become progressively more dysfunctional and the economy is in terrible shape. Those two factors are of overriding importance in shaping a presidency trying to both unwind Bush's mistakes and embark on an ambitious domestic policy agenda. So if you're looking for where Obama has gone wrong (if, in fact, his presidency is going down the tubes - an assumption that is driving a lot of these stories, that I don't find convincing), you need to start with the fundamentals and ask, could any president so easily overcome the combination of GOP intransigence and 10 percent unemployment (and a trivia-obsessed news cycle) and the great popular discontent that goes along with those things? Perhaps the presidency itself just isn't a strong enough institution to, as the media expects it, be the ultimate master and arbiter of national politics.

Everybody has an opinion on this. Certainly, Obama is attempting to be a centrist president during a time when no political center exists in American politics. But Rahm Emanuel is at best a bit player in that drama. Lord knows, if Jane Hamsher were chief of staff, maybe things would be different. But Rahm's distracting quadriceps don't have much to do with any of it.

This post first appeared on my True/Slant blog.