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It's Not the Staff: It's the Policies

It's Not the Staff: It's the Policies

By Jack Kelly - March 7, 2010

Perhaps the surest sign an administration is in trouble comes when members of the president's political party start saying in public the president must shake up his staff.

The Obama administration has accomplished the remarkable feat of alienating both most moderates and many left wingers. The moderates see what he's trying to do, and are frightened and angry. The moonbats note that he hasn't yet been able to do it, and are frustrated and angry.

The head liberals would most like to see roll is that of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who, they think, is too willing to compromise.

"The Rahm Emanuel that Obama hired is the poster child for the timid, pseudo-pragmatism that is inimical to the idealistic Obama agenda so many excited voters responded to last November," wrote former Washington Post blogger Dan Froomkin.

The president "needs a chief of staff with the wisdom to help point him down a bold, progressive path," wrote Matthew Rothschild, editor of the Progressive.

Mr. Froomkin and Mr. Rothschild are under the illusion Mr. Obama's unpopular liberal policies would be more popular if they were more liberal.

One who is not so deluded is Leslie Gelb, who is the epitome if not the acme of the Democratic foreign policy establishment. (A former New York Times foreign affairs columnist and assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration, Mr. Gelb is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.)

Mr. Gelb says of Mr. Emanuel that "no one I've talked to believes he has the management skills and discipline to run the White House."

Mr. Emanuel is a foul-mouthed jerk who may lack management skills. But, noted Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, the Obama administration would be more popular if the president had followed his advice.

According to Mr. Milbank, Mr. Emanuel opposed the failed effort to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay within a year and the decision to hold a civilian trial in New York City for 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Mr. Emanuel also favored a smaller, genuinely bipartisan health care bill.

"Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter," Mr. Milbank concluded.

Despite his many flaws, Mr. Emanuel is the closest thing to a grownup in President Obama's inner circle. The others in it share an adoration of Mr. Obama, malleable ethics and inexperience on the national stage.

Former Chicago Tribune reporter David Axelrod is a skilled media and political guy who is the Karl Rove of this administration. But Mr. Rove played little role in formulating foreign or economic policy. That Mr. Axelrod does indicates Mr. Obama is more interested in sizzle than in substance.

After Mr. Axelrod, the most influential aide is Chicago slumlord Valerie Jarrett, who encouraged Mr. Obama to travel to Copenhagen last summer in his embarrassingly futile bid to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago.

The key thing to remember about Mr. Obama's aides is that he chose them. Shaking up a troubled presidential staff is mostly an exercise in reshuffling deck chairs on the Titanic because each administration takes on the characteristics of its chief. There is a reason why Richard Nixon's chief aides were conspiratorial; that so many in the George W. Bush administration were mediocre; that so many in the Clinton administration were corrupt.

Deck-chair shuffling continues, in part, because members of the president's party find it safer to criticize the king's courtiers than the king himself; in part because they retain illusions about the president. (He's really a good guy on our side. He's just been let down by corrupt/incompetent/inexperienced aides. All will be well if a few heads roll.) But policy won't change unless the president changes.

After a start nearly as bad as Mr. Obama's, President Clinton made a successful mid-course correction. But Mr. Clinton was more interested in holding onto power and in having sex than in advancing any particular policy. Mr. Obama is more ideological, and thus less inclined to make a major shift toward the center.

Mr. Clinton also had had 10 years of executive experience as governor of Arkansas and a circle of intimates that wasn't restricted to radicals and Chicago political thugs.

Only Barack Obama can keep Barack Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter. But he doesn't seem so inclined.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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