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Chief of Staff Draws Fire From Left as Obama Falters

by Peter Wallsten

WASHINGTON-President Barack Obama's liberal backers have a long list of grievances. The Guantanamo Bay prison is still open. Health care hasn't been transformed. And Wall Street banks are still paying huge bonuses.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel speaks at the Wall St. Journal CEO Council on "Rebuilding Global Prosperity" in Washington November 16, 2009. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque) But they are directing their anger less at Mr. Obama than at the man who works down the hall from him. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, they say, is the prime obstacle to the changes they thought Mr. Obama's election would bring.

The friction was laid bare in August when Mr. Emanuel showed up at a weekly strategy session featuring liberal groups and White House aides. Some attendees said they were planning to air ads attacking conservative Democrats who were balking at Mr. Obama's health-care overhaul.

"F-ing retarded," Mr. Emanuel scolded the group, according to several participants. He warned them not to alienate lawmakers whose votes would be needed on health care and other top legislative items.

The antipathy reflects deep dissatisfaction on the Democratic left with Mr. Obama's first year in office, and represents a fracturing of the relationship between the president and the political base that mobilized to elect him. A little more than one year ago, Mr. Obama's victory led some to predict an era of Democratic dominance.

The anger on the left shows that Mr. Obama is caught in an internal battle over both the course of his administration and the Democratic Party.

Many in the party, particularly in the wake of the loss last week of a Massachusetts Senate seat, contend that the White House should chart a centrist approach focusing on the economy. They point to polls showing Mr. Obama's approval rating among independent voters has dropped by nearly 20 percentage points since early last year.

The left has gotten some of what it wanted: a ban on torture, an expansion of children's health insurance and an equal-pay law for women. But liberal activists say those and other measures add up to far less than what they expected.

Cenk Uygur, a liberal talk-radio host, calls Mr. Emanuel "Barack Obama's Dick Cheney." One group has run ads against Mr. Emanuel in his hometown of Chicago. And Jane Hamsher, a prominent liberal blogger, is going after Mr. Emanuel's service-10 years ago-on the board of housing-finance giant Freddie Mac.

For the president, Mr. Emanuel is a useful foil, playing a role akin to that of James Baker, who absorbed attacks from unhappy conservatives while chief of staff to Ronald Reagan. Mr. Emanuel is a centrist cut from the Bill Clinton mold, and his presence is useful as the president tries to cut deals with centrists and conservatives.

The unrest among liberals comes at a perilous political time. Party strategists worry that anger on the left could depress turnout in this year's midterm elections and cost the party congressional seats and state governorships. The most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC survey found 55% of Republicans "very interested" in the November elections, compared with 38% of Democrats.

The tension between Mr. Emanuel and liberals has spurred speculation that he might leave the White House, perhaps to run for office again, something he denies.

After the party's Massachusetts loss, criticism of the chief of staff-not only from activists, but from members of Congress-has increased.

In recent days, the White House turned to two other top advisers, Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, to discuss on network television how the Massachusetts defeat will affect the president's agenda.

There have been reports of tension between Mr. Emanuel and Ms. Jarrett, who is more ideologically in tune with the liberal base and close with the Obama family, but several people who have worked with the two say they get along fine.

Matthew Rothschild, editor of the Progressive, an antiwar magazine, wrote this month that Mr. Emanuel has "delivered defeat" for Mr. Obama and should be fired.

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

Mr. Emanuel responds with a reference to the party's base: "They like the president, and that's all that counts."

Allies say the chief of staff's strategy is purely realistic, that compromise is required in order to pass legislation. Mr. Emanuel's defenders note that Mr. Obama campaigned as a pragmatist who would value bipartisanship over ideology.

On health care, Mr. Emanuel negotiated with Republicans, pharmaceutical and health-insurance companies.

He also supported Congress dropping liberal ideas that didn't have enough support, in particular the "public option," a provision in which the government would provide health insurance for a large swath of the population. "Rahm's approach, like the president, is not ideological. It's practical," says Bruce Reed, chief executive of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and a frequent recipient of Mr. Emanuel's phone calls. "The administration's strategy has been to pass health-care reform, not die trying."

John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank with close ties to the White House, says he hears the griping about Mr. Emanuel's health-care strategy all the time, even in his own organization. "He's a pretty skilled practitioner of what it takes to get something done on Capitol Hill," he says. "But by moving in that direction, they've paid a big price on the public side, and the bill is unpopular and misunderstood."

"It's better if everyone on the outside is mad at the chief of staff than mad at the president," adds Mr. Podesta, a chief of staff to President Clinton.

While a number of Mr. Emanuel's predecessors, including Messrs. Baker and Podesta, were considered skilled gatekeepers for their bosses, Mr. Emanuel's résumé is somewhat unique: previous White House experience, a short spell as an investment banker, six years in the House as a representative from Illinois, responsibility for setting national campaign strategy for House races and a reputation as a brass-knuckled enforcer.

From his early days in Washington, Mr. Emanuel, who is 50 years old, was more interested in legislative and political victories than ideological warfare, say friends and critics alike. He saw himself as a "New Democrat," identifying with party centrists who were embroiled in an ideological struggle with liberals. As a senior adviser in the Clinton White House, Mr. Emanuel supported the president's tactic of "triangulation," in which Mr. Clinton joined forces with Republicans to push an overhaul of welfare, crime and illegal-immigration policies.

After winning a House seat in 2002, he was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and was credited with delivering the majority for his party in the 2006 elections. His strategy was to recruit conservative Democrats to run in Republican-leaning districts.

Within weeks of taking up his White House post, Mr. Emanuel was shuttling between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to resolve disagreements over the $787 billion economic-stimulus package. The legislation angered Republicans, but also irked the left, which regarded the package as too small and complained that Mr. Emanuel was intent on negotiating with the party's more conservative members.

Activists and former campaign staff members watched with dismay as Mr. Emanuel and his team pursued a traditional Washington style of Capitol Hill negotiations and deal making. Activists on the left had hoped the administration would use Mr. Obama's grass-roots campaign network, Organizing for America, and its email list with 13 million names to pressure lawmakers into adopting a more left-leaning agenda, such as pushing for universal health-care coverage.

House aides describe Mr. Emanuel's role in legislative negotiations as more involved than any chief of staff in recent times. During tense House votes on the stimulus package, climate-change legislation and health care, Mr. Emanuel barraged skittish members with phone calls and BlackBerry messages. In one case, he tracked down a Democratic member in the showers at the House gym to make sure he was an aye vote, says one congressional aide.

By the spring, civil libertarians and others were pushing the White House to roll back Bush-era antiterrorism policies on matters ranging from Guantanamo Bay to torture. In meetings of senior advisers, Mr. Emanuel was often the loudest voice questioning the wisdom of such changes, according to a participant in the discussions. His concern wasn't so much the substance of the policy, but the political consequences, this person says.

On May 19, civil-liberties advocates joined Mr. Obama, Mr. Emanuel and other aides for a meeting at the White House. They aired their frustrations with the president's policies. The president listened and asked questions.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who attended the meeting, says he had grown suspicious of Mr. Emanuel, who as a congressman had a largely pro-ACLU voting record. Mr. Romero says he noticed a shift when Mr. Emanuel became "consigliere at the White House," where he focuses "less on the policy outcomes and more on maintaining a Democratic agenda that will keep the party in power."

In the Clinton White House, Mr. Emanuel saw the pharmaceutical industry kill the administration's health agenda. Avoiding that outcome was his goal last year. He and other White House aides assured industry officials that the legislation wouldn't include price controls, and that the administration wouldn't pursue allowing the importation of cheaper drugs from Canada and Europe if the health plan passed.

The discussions with PhRMA, the drug industry's main lobby group, and other business groups angered many liberals, who felt Mr. Emanuel ceded too much ground. They also opposed the White House's decision to pursue support from Maine Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe.

Mr. Emanuel gave early indication that he was flexible on the public option, telling The Wall Street Journal last July that the door was open to alternative ideas to "keep the private insurers honest." That prompted a mass email from liberal group MoveOn.org, which said that "Emanuel's remarks will only embolden conservative opponents of reform" and that he was backing "disastrous half-measures."

"Everyone seems to be waiting around for the Chicago street brawler Rahm, because the one that showed up in the White House has little apparent fight in him," says Markos Moulitsas, publisher of the liberal blog Daily Kos. "Sure, he's quick to attack progressives when they criticize Obama or put legislative pressure on him from the left, but he's far too quick and happy to accommodate the Democratic Party's corporatist wing."

Mr. Emanuel's "retarded" outburst in August heightened the belief among some liberal leaders that the chief of staff was tough only on the left, especially when the health-care debate turned into a conflagration during a series of town-hall meetings.

The weekly strategy sessions where he made the remark, called the Common Purpose Project, are by invitation only, and participants are sworn to secrecy. Activists say it's a one-way conversation, with the White House presenting its views and asking liberals to refrain from public criticism. Ms. Hamsher, publisher of the Fire Dog Lake blog, calls the gatherings the "veal pen."

One liberal group, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, founded by ex-MoveOn staff member Adam Green, spent $20,000 to briefly air a television ad featuring a former constituent in Mr. Emanuel's House district. "A lot of us back home hope Rahm Emanuel is fighting for people like us as White House chief of staff," said the man in the ad. "But if he sides with insurance companies and undermines the public option, well, he won't have many fans in Chicago."

Rep. Anthony Weiner, a New York Democrat and one of the House's more liberal members, recalls telling Mr. Emanuel the White House needed to apply more pressure to secure passage of the public option. Mr. Emanuel's response, Mr. Weiner says, was always the same: He was open to any idea that could gain a majority vote.

 

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