Controversy swirls around White House Chief of Staff Emanuel

Monday, March 8, 2010 - 4:29pm

Will the real Rahm Emanuel please stand up? The hard-charging chief of staff for the Obama administration has lately been stirring up new speculation in Washington as the White House enters a critical push to finalize tortuous congressional negotiations on health care legislation.

Certainly, Emanuel is accustomed to being the center of controversy-but never has opinion about his role been quite this divided. The reliably vulgar enforcer of internal White House discipline gets kudos from centrist commentators as the administration's pragmatic voice of reason-backing a modest approach to health care reform and opposing the White House's botched one-year deadline for the closure of Guantanamo. Rahm's foes on the left, meanwhile, contend that he's single-handedly holding Obama back from pursuing the ambitious progressive agenda he laid out during the presidential campaign. The only thing about him that now seems certain is that drama surrounding him has seeped into the sphere of "No Drama" Obama, and the White House appears to be a house divided. Outgoing New York Democratic Rep. Eric Massa, who initially announced he was leaving Congress over health issues but stepped aside officially today as he conceded that he had subjected a male aide to verbal sexual harassment at a wedding reception, also took a shot at the White House enforcer on his way out the door, telling a New York radio station that Emanuel is the "son of the devil's spawn" who would "sell his own mother to get a vote."

After numerous Emanuel criticisms appeared in the media, the Washington Post ran three separate pieces in recent weeks casting Emanuel as the non-delusional realist within the administration and "the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter." The Hill published a report over the weekend suggesting that unfavorable tidbits about Emanuel were leaked from inside the White House, while Emanuel himself has been accused of pulling strings with friendly contacts at the Washington Post to get them to print nice things about him.

Others have speculated that Emanuel could be engineering all the recent press attention to distract reporters as the White House tries to barrel through with a March 18 deadline for Congress to deliver a finished bill; better to discuss a divisive in-house Democrat, the thinking goes, than to slog through the partisan health care fight in laborious detail one more time.

Whatever the ultimate explanation, the insider blame-game has become so pervasive, according to Politico, that the president had to put his foot down, ordering staffers to refrain from further leaks to avoid fueling more speculation. "Don't get absorbed in the Washington finger-pointing and intrigue," was how a White House aide described Obama's staff directive. The source told Politico reporter Mike Allen that the key message from the president was to "keep our eye on the ball here and not get distracted by the games of Washington."

Still, there's no sign that the Rahm-centric finger pointing will let up anytime soon. Capitalizing on the new climate of speculation over the chief of staff's role, the New York Times Sunday magazine rushed to post next Sunday's cover story by Peter Baker on the political philosophy known as "Rahmism" ahead of the magazine's usual release schedule. An interview by Katie Couric with Emanuel and his brother Zeke, who also works inside the White House as a health care expert, is scheduled to air on "60 Minutes" later in the month.

Democratic insiders, meanwhile, are nervous about the present boomlet in all things Emanuel. "Rahm has been piling his plate high, leaving many to question if his portfolio is too broad," one Democratic political consultant told Yahoo! News. "Now, he's apparently added 'Do my own PR' to the list. Few think that anything good will come of this-for example, passing health care reform."