In the Arena


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I’ve always been a Rahm fan, even when I disagreed with him. Love the passion, the quickness, the candor. Ron Brownstein has a nice appreciation of what Emanuel actually believes here. But his departure–and Pete Rouse’s imminent arrival–highlight a debilitating tendency that Democratic presidents have: they tend to go for chiefs of staff who have Congressional experience. Republicans tend to have chiefs with executive experience. This isn’t ironclad: Bill Clinton started with an outside executive, Mack McLarty, who proved inadequate. Clinton then turned to the ultimate Congressional insider, Leon Panetta.

Why is this important? Because Democratic presidents too often find themselves in thrall to their Congressional leadership–which, in this largely Republican era has been the party’s center of gravity. (Presidents come and go; Nancy Pelosi is eternal). They place too much emphasis on legislating, too little on leading; too much emphasis on deal-making, too little on managing and communicating. Thus, Obama has won a historic boatload of legislative victories, but he’s had difficulty establishing his authority as the nation’s Chief Executive. He certainly has befuddled the Americans I’ve spoken with during my September road trip and it seems clear that if Obama is going to win another term, he’s going to have to find a chief of staff who understands that the President should stand above, and apart from, the Congress.

I don’t know Rouse very well. I don’t know what his priorities will be. Early reports emphasized his “calming” effect and his long career as a Congressional insider. But if this no-drama White House gets any calmer, it’ll be comatose. There’s a need for energetic, non-Congressional, non-insider voices in the inner circle. Some wise executives like Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell would be welcome.