The president is surrounded by acolytes of the Cult of Obama. They consider him to be a "transformational figure" who need not sully himself with the usual rules of politics. The president himself subscribes to this point of view, rejecting suggestions that he recalibrate his Olympian ambitions.
That's not me saying that. It's not even one of my knuckle-dragging, baby-eating, right-wing brethren. It's Dana Milbank, the liberal Washington Post writer widely seen as Maureen Dowd in drag by most conservatives.
Milbank wrote a column Feb. 21 arguing that all the president's problems can be attributed to a single factor. "Obama's first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters," writes Milbank, referring to Rahm Emanuel, apparently the only senior staffer who hasn't drunk the Obama Kool-Aid. "Arguably, Emanuel is the only person keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter."
Milbank's column sent political junkies into a frenzy of dime-story Kremlinology. Did Rahm plant the story? Did he talk to Milbank? Will Obama, Zeus-like, hurl a lightning bolt at his major domo?
Milbank insists he didn't interview Emanuel. But that just underscores how fiendishly clever Emanuel is, claim his enemies. He had his friends advance the story line, without leaving his fingerprints on anything. Aha, say others, if all can see through that ruse, how clever could he have been?
What really got tongues wagging is the ugliness of the White House chief of staff seeming to blame the president for his problems. Normally, a chief of staff falls on his sword for the boss, not shoves it into the boss' back.
But Milbank makes an important point. "It's worth noting," he wrote in a Post chat-room discussion, "that nobody seems to
be questioning the argument itself . . . which I take to be a good sign."
I don't know what he means by a "good sign." Good for Obama? Emanuel? The country? But Milbank is right that no one's disputing his basic point: Obama and his sycophants are the problem.
If reports are to be believed, Emanuel wanted Obama to be less ambitious ideologically but more aggressive politically. Emanuel likes winning, and so he thinks the president should pick battles he can win. Emanuel opposed the idea of shutting down Guantanamo Bay within a year. He argued that Obama should have gone for a smaller, more digestible healthcare bill that expanded coverage and attracted bipartisan support. He offered similar advice on a cap-and-trade bill. But on these and other issues, Obama opted to follow the lead of ideologically committed House liberals.
While so much of the hoopla over Milbank's column focuses on personalities -- Emanuel has earned many enemies -- I think it all masks a more profound ideological insecurity, indeed a political identity crisis.
America is, quite simply, a center-right country. Many have cited polling data showing that self-described conservatives outnumber liberals 2 to 1. But that's not nearly so telling as the fact that self-identified conservatives have outnumbered liberals in every year since 1968; when combined with self-proclaimed moderates, the country is enduringly 65% to 75% moderates and conservatives.
Bill Clinton initially governed as if he'd won a more left-leaning mandate than the voters intended. Clinton admitted, in a 1995 interview with the then-columnist Ben Wattenberg, that he'd gone astray philosophically. With the help of the Machiavellian pollster Dick Morris, Clinton recalibrated to the center and saved his presidency.
No surprise that Emanuel's most politically formative years were spent as a Clinton strategist. Yet Obama has indicated he never considered the Clinton model appropriate or appealing. He wants to be "transformative" like Ronald Reagan. But such a transformation requires an electorate capable of being transformed. Obama and his acolytes misread the public, thinking voters were as worshipful as they were.
Beyond the disloyalty and all that, the real reason the Milbank column has enraged so many left-wing bloggers and liberal columnists is that Emanuel's understanding of the political landscape puts him in the reality-based community. And that is a community the Obama cult refuses to join.