In the corporate world, fixing blame is an art form, and the usual strategy is Pin the Tail on the Gone Guy. Anything that goes wrong in the weeks following the departure of a significant organizational figure gets blamed on him or her. It keeps the heat off of everyone else, and doesn’t usually do much damage to the person who has found greener pastures.
So guess who gets the blame inside the Obama White House for the midterm beating?
And his old colleagues in Washington aren’t too happy about it. Some of them 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 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.”
After a month of running for mayor of Chicago, Emanuel took the time on Tuesday to call some of the defeated candidates, whose political careers he helped launch as part of the Democratic takeover in 2006.
But the fact remains: four years later, his class of ’06 is decimated and Emanuel has left Washington politics altogether.
Several lower-level White House aides say they’re still surprised that Emanuel would so readily follow his personal ambition instead of staying beside the many Democrats he helped elect in the foxhole in the final weeks of the campaign.
A senior Obama aide concedes that Emanuel’s congressional strategy was a mistake—that the White House ceded far too much authority to deeply unpopular Democrats on Capitol Hill. But this source says the president had no right to stop Emanuel’s personal ambition to become mayor of Chicago, not least because of the dedication he had shown to the White House as chief of staff. The economic headwinds were a far greater factor in the Dems’ defeat, in any event, this source says.
That may make for handy blame-shifting, but Rahm Emanuel was hardly the only person in the administration or the party that urged an all-or-nothing approach to ObamaCare. Pundits on the left and key Democratic officials blamed the 1994 midterms on a failure to deliver, not their radical agenda to nationalize health care. Even Bill Clinton went on the road to convince skeptical Democrats that the only way to save their seats was through self-immolation.
Now that the strategy has failed, though, someone has to take the blame, and as in most administrations, it won’t be the President. In a real sense, that’s the role aides and Cabinet members fill — a firewall for blame to protect the boss. (And in a lot of private-sector organizations as well.) In fact, one of the complaints reported by Richard Wolffe at the Daily Beast is that Rahm didn’t stick around long enough to get fired, so that Obama could show sweeping changes in reaction to the massive rebuke delivered by voters.
Meanwhile, Howard Kurtz reports that people outside the White House are pointing much higher up the chain:
“His economic team needs to resign en masse,” James Carville declares. “They may have saved the country from a depression, the history books may treat them kindly, but the electorate didn’t treat them very kindly… None of our economic team could explain anything to anybody.” Tim Geithner, take note: The Cajun is on your case.
Obama’s signature failure, in Carville’s view, was failing to crack down on “greedy” Wall Street bankers: “That’s why the Democratic Party exists, to deal with that, and we just bailed them out and threw a Band-Aid over it.” ….
“The problem is Obama,” says Joe Trippi, who this fall helped Jerry Brown win his old job back in California and was a mastermind of Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign. “I don’t think he’s going to change. I don’t think he’s as adaptable as Clinton was.” Dean, he says, “could end up being one of the guys who continue to challenge Obama from the left as Boehner and the Tea Party are pulling him to the center.”
Rahm probably won’t suffice as a target for blameshifting. His impact on Congressional action was significant, but in the service of Obama’s priorities and policies. If any group has to fall on their swords, it will be the economic team, as Carville advises. The election was fought on the economy and on policy, not on nuances of Capitol Hill interaction. Unless Obama shows a significant housecleaning on policy, he won’t convince anyone that he listened to the voters.