Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.
Seldom in political life has two-and-a-half months seemed quite so long a wait. People voted for Obama because they want change, and the daily news just makes them want it all the sooner. (Just today: GM stock hits its lowest value in 60 years, DHL ceases North American operations and fires nearly 10,000 people, Circuit City declares bankruptcy as it goes into the holiday season owing $650 million to its suppliers.) But the inauguration isn’t until January 20, and as Obama pointed out in his press conference Friday, the country only has one president at a time.
He looked tired at that podium on Friday. Ordinarily, a president-elect can take some time off to go recover from the rigors of nonstop campaigning. In Obama’s case, he had to appoint a Chief of Staff and meet with an expert panel of economic advisers, all in the first three days.
Still, ultimately, for the next 70 days, he can do relatively little except step lightly and make plans.
In the meantime, of course, the press and the public will be hanging on every announcement in an attempt to read his mind, or read the tea leaves of future developments.
The one clear and unequivocal decision we have so far is the selection of Rahm Emanuel to serve as White House Chief of Staff. And as anyone knows who has followed U.S. politics at all in recent decades (or who watched The West Wing), the Chief of Staff is often practically a deputy president. This is, therefore, a decision of some consequence.
Personally, I’m not thrilled by the decision. Emanuel is (was) the Representative from the district next door to mine. I’ve met him, and he certainly lives up to his reputation for abrasiveness. During his days as a policy adviser in the Clinton White House, he was responsible for pushing some of the worst initiatives of that administration—things like NAFTA and “welfare reform.” As a member of Congress, he’s been given credit for the 2006 Democratic victories, but the fact is that it was largely undeserved; throughout that campaign cycle he seemed mired in the past, fighting against Howard Dean’s 50-state DNC strategy and failing to grasp how the public mood had shifted on the war. (For example: in the 2006 race for Illinois’ 6th District, vacated by Henry Hyde, rather than support the liberal Christine Cegelis—who had put up a strong challenge and won 45% against the entrenched Hyde in 2004—Emanuel primaried Cegelis and put the DCCC’s weight and money behind centrist Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth, who lost the seat to a Republican.) He’s also the son of an Irgun veteran, personally served in the IDF, and takes an extraordinarily hard line on Israel.
He’s basically a triangulating, DLC-style center-right Democrat. In other words, Emanuel’s not really in synch with Obama’s style or ideology, in any number of ways.
(Why did Obama choose him, then? It could be as simple as the facts that (A) he has experience in the White House, (B) he has experience in Congress, and (C) he’s part of Obama’s political circle. There aren’t many people whose résumés hit all three of those points.)
Still, there are at least a few good things I can say about the appointment. For one, it shows that Obama is living up to the expectation of assembling an ideologically diverse, Lincoln-style “team of rivals.” For another, Emanuel is certainly more than qualified to play “bad cop” to Obama’s good cop when it comes to twisting arms to get things done, and as such it sends a signal to the Congressional leadership that Obama won’t be a pushover. However much you run on reform, it helps to have someone who knows how the game is played in order to achieve it. (For a third, it takes Emanuel out of the running for eventual Speaker of the House.)
And as a side note, it will be nice to have both a President and a Chief of Staff who hail from Chicago! Obama will be the first Democratic president from outside the South since JFK, nearly half a century ago, and the first president of either party to hail from a major city since—believe it or not—William Howard Taft, a full century ago. (Taft was from Cincinnati. That was back in the days when it wasn’t oxymoronic to call oneself a progressive Republican.) Given that 54% of Americans live in urban areas with populations over one million (roughly the top fifty metro areas), it’s lamentable how neglected urban concerns have been in recent years, and it’s long past time we had someone in the White House who understands an urban sensibility. (And if the spotlight directs some additional public attention to this particular urban area, all the better.)
Updated to add: And it transpires that Obama does, in fact, want to create a White House Office of Urban Policy. (Apparently it’s something he’s mentioned before, but it wasn’t exactly a major issue in the campaign.) Transition co-chair Valerie Jarrett says its mission will be to coordinate federal efforts to help cities.
(Or, as recent GOP strategists would have it, “fake America.” Can’t imagine why they lost…)Tags: Chicago, Obama, Rahm Emanuel, transition