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Whos' the Leading Man? It Ain't Rahm or Ax.

5 years ago
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Did you know that mega-film director James Cameron has infiltrated the White House? Yes, he lent Rahm Emanuel one of the "link" machines from "Avatar" that allows the White House chief of staff to "drive" another being -- and that being happens to be President Obama.

OK, not quite. But for some that has seemed to be the driving Washington narrative: the all-powerful White House chief of staff hijacking the presidency of the progressive-minded Obama. It's a popular explanation among liberals for their disappointment with Obama -- and for the president's failure to enact sweeping change (including historic health care reform) by now. And it makes a lot of sense -- from a Hollywood perspective. Practically every popcorn movie about the White House features a diabolical chief of staff. And Emanuel seems well cast for the part: the drama, the cursing, the bird of prey looks. There's also his politics. Ever since his service in the Clinton White House, Emanuel, a former investment banker, has been regarded (fairly or not) as a foe of progressive policy moves that don't have an obvious and immediate political gain.

So he's a natural scapegoat for frustrated Democrats. At the same time, Emanuel has found himself in the difficult position of the staffer who becomes the center of attention, particularly because of two stories in The Washington Post (which he may or may not have helped come into being). First, columnist Dana Milbank wrote a piece advancing the notion that Obama "would have been better off heeding Emanuel's counsel" in the first year. The column appeared to have been spurred by unidentified Emanuel fans, because it contained sentences like this one: "Obama's greatest mistake was failing to listen to Emanuel on health care."

In other words, the problem was that James Cameron's machine was not really working. And not long after that column, The Post ran a front-page news article that further reinforced this point. It reported: "Obama's first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters. Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter." In this article, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Florida Democrat, was quoted as saying that Obama and his crew ought to listen to Emanuel because that would benefit "all our overall goals." It was almost as if she was chastising the president and taking sides. Unseemly?

Another turn in this Washington morality play -- or soap opera -- came on Sunday, with a New York Times front-pager that juxtaposed White House chief strategist David Axelrod, the ideologue, against Emanuel, the "pragmatist" -- even though Emanuel in this article cautioned journalists against placing White House aides "into boxes and categories that are just not accurate" and Axelrod maintained there is no "fissure with my buddy Rahm."

Still, the line seems to be drawn: Rahm vs. Ax. Take your pick -- and keep that backbiting gossip flowing, for the politerati relishes it. But there's someone missing from this picture: their boss. It's true that people make policy. But Obama is a brainy president capable of rendering big and tough calls on his own. He didn't need Emanuel to tell him that dumping single-payer would be a safe and conventional move. He didn't need Axelrod to advise him that pushing for sweeping reform would define his presidency. It's hard to imagine Obama being led along by either fellow.

The two men share responsibility for how the Obama presidency functions. They have jobs to do, and these tasks can be performed well or poorly. Previous White House chiefs of staff and message people have screwed up. But Obama is responsible for shaping his presidency.

Emanuel might, as The Post reported, have worried that placing 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed on trial in a New York City civilian court would trigger political problems for the administration. And Axelrod might have backed Attorney General Eric Holder's decision to proceed in this fashion. But Obama was the decider. He let Eric Holder call this one, presumably having a good clue what he would do. Every White House experiences deep and profound policy debates. Ultimately, that's what's important-- what's decided, not who pushed it.

If anyone needs an Oscar movie reference, perhaps a better one would be "The Hurt Locker," the Best Picture. In that film, Sgt. 1st Class William James is part of a bomb-disposal team in Iraq, but he's the only member of the crew who has to confront the toughest choices: which wire to cut, when to take a chance, when to run. That's Obama. There's plenty of story in the tale of a powerful White House chief of staff, but if anyone is looking for someone to hold accountable for the current state of the Obama presidency, it's the star of the production.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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