Can Obama Rise Again?

Barack Obama
Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

Whatever else we might say about Rahm Emanuel, we must grant that he knows how to make a timely exit. He left his advisory position at the Clinton White House in October 1998, just as the House impeachment hearings were impending, joining the boutique investment firm of the late Bruce Wasserstein and, over the next two and a half years, taking home an estimated $18 million. This year, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, famous for what the Beltway press typically refers to as his “roguish charm” without ever quite explaining what behavior on his part justifies the second of those two words, again chose October to leave the White House, with evident electoral devastation looming, to pursue his dream of becoming mayor of Chicago.

Toward the end of a dreadful election week in which the Democrats lost around sixty-five House seats (a few outcomes were still pending), the largest off-year thumping of either party since 1938, it seemed to dawn on some beleaguered White House aides that Emanuel’s timing wasn’t very amusing, and they went (namelessly) to Richard Wolffe, the former Newsweek journalist who has become an inside chronicler for Tina Brown’s The Daily Beast of goings-on in the Obama administration, to remind interested parties that some in the White House

shake their heads in disbelief that Emanuel would bolt at precisely the juncture when the Democrats needed to shape their strategy and message during the homestretch of what everyone knew would be the toughest election cycle in years.

“It was Rahm who always said, ‘We’ve just got to put points on the board,’ and that’s why we have a transactional [i.e., a deal-making presidency],” said one former colleague. “The only problem is that Obama is not a transactional politician. It was Rahm’s strategy and then he leaves a month before the election for his own personal political career. It’s extraordinary.”1

Emanuel’s departure, if not its timing, is understandable—the mayoralty of Chicago doesn’t open up to a non-Daley very often. Still, it is worth noting after the Democrats’ debacle because, as Ari Berman’s lively book Herding Donkeys reminds us, Emanuel was instrumental in building the Democratic House majority that collapsed on November 2. It will bring no joy to either Emanuel or Howard Dean, the bitterest enemies in Washington in 2006, when Dean chaired the Democratic National Committee and Emanuel the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (“dee-triple-cee,” or simply “d-trip” to the truly initiated), for them to know that they will be forever linked in the story of building the short-lived Democratic majority of 2006–2010—and in its demise.

Berman, who with his editors (and, to be fair, many of us) seems to have anticipated a longer Democratic spring than was actually the case, has fallen victim to events—always a risk with a current-affairs book. The story of how Dean, the hero of Berman’s book, used his celebrated “fifty-state strategy” to make…

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