Obama’s ‘Chicago mafia’ blamed for paralysis at the top

February 22, 2010 05:43

The Sunday Times February 21, 2010

Christina Lamb in Washington

WHEN President Barack Obama’s secret service codename was revealed as Renegade and his wife Michelle’s as Renaissance, the names seemed perfect for a first couple who had come to Washington to shake things up.

More than a year into the Obama administration, with healthcare yet to be reformed, Wall Street banks continuing to pay huge bonuses and Guantanamo Bay prison still open, that mood of hope has turned to disillusion. Obama’s policy of engagement has yielded no progress in the Middle East or Iran; the war in Afghanistan continues to exact a big toll in lives and dollars; while the heaviest snow in Washington for 90 years seems to have stymied any hope of climate change legislation.

The president and his team now find themselves under fire for mishandling Congress from everyone from senior Democrats to social columnists. Critics say that by failing to move on from the “us versus them” feeling of the Obama election campaign, they have united an opposition that was in disarray. The result is legislative paralysis despite the biggest Democratic majority in 30 years.

Last week a prominent Democratic senator resigned after criticising both government and Congress. Evan Bayh from Indiana, who had never lost a race and was expected to be re-elected in November, complained that the party’s recent loss of the Senate seat of the late Ted Kennedy should have been seen as a wake-up call.

“Moderates and independents even in a state as Democratic as Massachusetts just aren’t buying our message,” he said.

“They don’t believe the answers we are currently proposing are solving their problems.”

Even society writers are disenchanted. “The Obama White House has closed ranks. They were completely overwhelmed by the new office,” said Karen Sommer Shalett, editor-in-chief of DC magazine. “I haven’t heard of them going to any house parties or Georgetown row houses to be entertained.

“That’s important because if you’re social with someone over canapés and you know their wife and you know their children, you talk business in a friendlier way.”

When the Obamas do go to someone’s house for dinner, almost invariably it is to the home of Valerie Jarrett, their old friend from Chicago who serves as a political adviser.

The Wednesday evening White House cocktail parties which were launched with great fanfare as a way to reach out to Republicans, fizzled out last spring. The two parties seem more hostile than ever.

“This administration has managed to divide its friends and unite its enemies,” said Steve Clemons, director of the American Strategy Programme at the New America Foundation.

He and others lay the blame on the Chicago team, advisers from Obama’s adopted city. “Obama’s West Wing is filled with people who are in their jobs because of their Chicago connections or because they signed on early during his presidential campaign,” complained Doug Wilder, who in 1990s Virginia was America’s first elected black governor and was an early backer of Obama. “One problem is they do not have sufficient experience at governing at the executive branch level. The deeper problem is that they are not listening to the people.”

Obama relies on five people, four of whom are Chicagoans. They are Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, David Axelrod and Jarrett, his political advisers, and Michelle, while the fifth kitchen cabinet member is Robert Gibbs, his chief spokesman, who comes from Alabama.

The president consults them on everything. Military commanders were astounded when they participated in Afghanistan war councils and referred to them as the “Chicago mafia”. It was this group that inserted into Obama’s Afghan surge speech the deadline of July 2011 as a date to start withdrawing.

With Democrats fearing big losses in the mid-term elections in November, the knives are out for Emanuel, whose abrasive manner and use of profanities have won him few friends. Although his job is to deflect criticism from his boss, Rahmbo, as he is known, seems to have gone over the top.

The Wall Street Journal reported him losing his temper at a strategy session in August and referring to liberals as “f***ing retarded”. He is said to have sent dead fish to a pollster whose numbers he did not like.

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, called on Obama to remove Emanuel, arguing that he needs someone who knows how to navigate Washington or will end up being no more than a speechmaker.

“No one I’ve talked to believes he [Emanuel] has the management skills and discipline to run the White House,” he wrote in The Daily Beast.

Among those touted as possible replacements are David Gergen, a political consultant brought in by President Bill Clinton, or John Podesta, a former Clinton chief of staff who now heads the Center for American Progress, a left-wing pressure group.

Emanuel would be unlikely to go without a fight. “Obama needs Emanuel at the top,” argued Dana Milbank in yesterday’s Washington Post, writing that the chief of staff was being unfairly blamed for the healthcare debacle.

“Where the president is airy and idealistic, Rahm is earthy and calculating. One thinks big; the other, a former House Democratic caucus chair, understands the congressional mind, in which small stuff counts for more than broad strokes.”

In Milbank’s view, Obama’s real problem is his other confidants, Jarrett, Gibbs and Axelrod, whom he describes as “part of the cult of Obama”, believing he is “a transformational figure who needn’t dirty his hands in politics”.

While Obama may have campaigned on a slogan of change, he has shown himself reluctant to sack people.

The problem may go deeper. Douglas Schoen, former pollster for Bill Clinton, believes the Obama team misinterpreted victory as an endorsement of his liberal agenda when it was really a reaction against George W Bush and the credit crisis. “They need to recognise there is only one fundamental issue in America: jobs,” he said.

What no one disputes is that Obama is extremely clever. Were it not for losing the Kennedy seat and with it the Democrats’ 60-seat super-majority in the Senate, Obama would probably have signed healthcare into law by now.

The president has not given up on the reform. He is expected to publish a revised bill today or Monday, just before a televised White House summit on Thursday with congressional Republicans. But they are calling on Democrats to start all over again with a far less sweeping proposal.

The biggest hurdle may be Obama’s own ambition combined with lack of experience. A leading Democratic supporter described his administration as “unfocused”, adding that he had counted 137 items on Obama’s agenda.

“He needs to realise that he’s running a huge operation and has to sequence priorities,” said Clemons. “He’s not thinking like the chief executive of a complex organisation.”

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