Monday, January 9, 2012

The President's ménage à trois

Posted By on 01.09.12 at 04:20 PM

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  • Neon Tommy
What is it like to be the most powerful person in the world, but only the third most powerful person in your marriage?

This may have been President Obama's predicament last year, until he and Rahm Emanuel split up.

In The Obamas, to be published tomorrow, author Jodi Kantor notes that the chief of staff to a president rarely has "an easy relationship with the first lady." They are "the president's two spouses, in a sense, one public and official and one private and informal."

Married to Michelle and Rahm: maybe it's not the economy that has aged the president.

Kantor describes the relationship between President Obama's better thirds:

Michelle and Rahm Emanuel had almost no bond; their relationship was distant and awkward from the beginning. She had been skeptical of him when he was selected, and now he returned the favor; he was uneasy about first ladies in general, several aides close to him said, based on clashes with Hillary Clinton in the 1990s that became so severe that she had tried to fire him from her husband's administration.

Michelle was the idealist, Rahm the pragmatist, the two of them yanking the president in opposite directions. Michelle’s most profound influence on the Obama presidency, Kantor writes, was “the sense of purpose she shared with her husband, the force of her worldview, her passionate beliefs about access, opportunity, and fairness; her readiness to do what was unpopular and pay political costs. Every day, he met with advisers who emphasized the practical realities of Washington, who reminded him of poll numbers; he spent his nights with Michelle, who talked about moral imperatives, aides said, who reminded him again and again that they were there to do good, to avoid being distracted by political noise, to be bold.”

And you know who led those chats about poll numbers. For better or for worse, it was Emanuel who was telling the president what might actually pass Congress, and what were pie-in-the-sky dreams on which he'd waste his political capital. Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Wall Street Journal reporter, makes this clear in another major behind-the-scenes look at the Obama White House, last year's Confidence Men. The public option as part of health care reform? A nonstarter, Emanuel advised Obama.

Obama's choice of Emanuel as his second "spouse" had surprised some, Suskind says, given how different the two men are. Emanuel was "by certain accounts ruthless," but had "boundless tactical energy" and White House experience, having served as political director for Bill Clinton. Suskind notes that Emanuel had briefly left government work to earn $16 million in two years as an investment banker. He quotes an anonymous former investment chief who is a fan of Emanuel's: "Paying someone who will be a future government official a lot of money for doing very little? On Wall Street we call that an investment."

The president was tentative in his first few months in office, relying on Emanuel and his other more experienced advisers, Suskind says. And when he finally showed some gumption, Emanuel was there to rein him in. Meeting with his economic advisers early in 2009, Obama argued for a broad restructuring of the banking industry, a project that might have cost $700 billion. This would "begin to change the reckless behavior of Wall Street and show millions of unemployed Americans that accountability flows in both directions," the president said, according to Suskind. Obama then left the room, saying he wanted the issue resolved quickly. Suskind's account continues:

Rahm Emanuel waited until the president was fully out of the room and then seized the floor.

"Everyone shut the fuck up. Let me be clear—taking down the banking industry in a program that could cost $700 billion is a fantasy....It's not going to fuckin' happen....So give it up. The job of everyone in this room is to move the president, when he gets back, toward a solution that works."

Christina Romer, chair of the council of economic advisers, was at this meeting. Suskind quotes her as saying she felt like she'd "been punched in the stomach." Obama's bolder side at last had emerged; Emanuel had "waited until he left and then crushed it," she said. The president acquiesced.

All this acquiescing was not sitting well with Michelle. She wanted Emanuel out, according to Kantor—and, ultimately, the president...acquiesced. The president and his chief of staff were amicably divorced, with the Obamas keeping the White House and Emanuel granted custody of Chicago.

Emanuel's replacement, Bill Daley, never butted heads with Michelle Obama the way Emanuel did—but neither was he seen as an inspiring leader. He announced his resignation today, effective at month's end. Obama will replace him with budget director Jack Lew. "In Congress, Lew’s stock is unusually high," the Washington Post's Ezra Klein says. "He has emerged as one of the members of the Obama administration Republicans prefer working with." A profile of Lew by Politico earlier this year ("A liberal GOP says it trusts") included an admiring quote from house majority leader Eric Cantor. There's no word yet on Michelle's opinion, but maybe this far into his presidency, Barack Obama is ready to lead on his own.

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