Dysfunction at the White House

With people such as Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod at his side, Obama is unlikely to turn his presid

A couple of years back, I had an experience that made me feel like a ten-year-old boy all over again, being chastised by a particularly fierce schoolmaster. The man giving me a dressing down was an outwardly amiable fellow named Josh Bolten, then President George W Bush's chief of staff: he was demanding an apology from me for using an anecdote he insisted he had told me in confidence (yes, he must be a reader of the New Statesman). In fact, I had checked and found that the story had already appeared elsewhere - but the ten-year-old in me felt I had no choice but to stammer out an apology. "Apology accepted," Bolten pronounced imperiously.

I still don't know exactly what it was that turned me into a quaking child, but now I wonder whether I was subconsciously inti­midated by the enormous and hostile power being projected at me. Arguably, the White House chief of staff is the second most powerful man (no woman has ever held the office) in the world: not only is he the man closest to the president in the Oval Office, but he also acts as his gatekeeper, deciding who can see the president and when. Even Vice-President Joe Biden, 67, first has to ask 50-year-old Rahm Emanuel - President Barack Obama's chief of staff - for an appointment.

Obama's henchmen

I felt that same exudation of power (but not, this time, hostility) when I last met Emanuel, aka "Rahmbo": as I shook hands with him, he looked me straight in the eye for what must have been at least ten seconds.

He follows another tradition of White House chiefs of staff, too. "Rahm Emanuel probably has the dirtiest mouth in Washington," says Eric Mas­sa, a Democratic congressman from New York who has just resigned his seat. "He is an individual who would sell his mother to get a vote [or] strap his children to the front end of a locomotive."

Massa's brief political career in DC tells you all you need to know about Emanuel, the current atmosphere in Obama's White House, and Washington itself. Following a long career in the US navy, Massa was elected to the House of Representatives in 2008, but quickly proved to be something of a maverick. He was opposed to Obama's health-care "reform" policies, for example, favouring a more muscular, universal health-care system.

But that was not the kind of loyalty Rahmbo demanded, and rumours that Massa had been involved in some kind of gay sex scandal swiftly started to circulate. The result? Massa announced on 5 March that he would resign, citing cancer as the reason, and three days later he was no longer even a congressman.

Exit from DC one idealistic but now highly embittered Democrat. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Obama's supposed brotherly-love idealism just two years ago, but was none­theless politically executed by Obama's merciless henchmen the moment he showed a hint of independence.
This sad story of a little-known New York congressman barely hit the headlines, but it is emblematic of why the Obama administration is in such a shambles. We are witnessing a self-annihilating battle between Obama the Candidate, largely the creation of 55-year-old David Axelrod, the cynical, dream-peddling public relations man from Chicago who is unhappily ensconced as a "senior adviser" in the White House, and Obama the President, as exemplified by the ruthless and pragmatic Emanuel, a Washington insider who also served as a senior adviser in the Clinton administration 17 years ago before becoming a congressman himself (also representing Chi­cago, incidentally).

Fantasy politics

Guess which of the two is winning? Axelrod may yet survive and even persuade Obama to get rid of Emanuel, but he now looks and acts like a broken man: he has put on at least 20lb in the past year and makes no secret of how much he hates Washington.

Predictably, he and Emanuel profess undying love for each other. But Axelrod has made the painful discovery that it is much more fun to run vicious electoral campaigns and conjure up visions of Elysium to a gullible media than it is to govern: fantasy politics is a lot easier than Realpolitik.

The main culprit, however, is Obama himself. Emanuel and Axelrod are mere passing characters on the Washington stage. Both men will be forgotten within a few years, having retired with their fortunes back to Illinois (in just two and a half years between his stints at the White House and his election to the House, Emanuel made $16.2m as a banker in Chicago, according to congressional records - don't ask me how).

It was Obama, lest we forget, who eagerly allowed himself to be Axelrod's "project" - that was the word used by the small bunch of wealthy Chicagoans who championed him. He was the one who flashed his charming smile, peered at the autocue, and made countless soaring promises that he would never be able to fulfil. Yet practically all the world fell for it.

I believe Obama has six months, at most, to turn things around. History teaches us lessons, and we should not forget that the White House was in disarray after Ronald Reagan's first year in office - yet, however unjustifiably, he went on to become one of the most popular US presidents in history. The same could yet happen with Obama. But with people such as Emanuel and Axelrod at his side, alas, the odds of history repeating itself are looking increasingly slim.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II