Rahm Emanuel controversy: White House fights image of turmoil

Is White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel a shrewd tactician or an official who should get the boot? The competing story lines have spun out in the press. Now, his name is also coming up in the mess involving just-resigned Rep. Eric Massa.

By , Staff writer

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    In this January 9, 2009, photo, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs check their BlackBerry devices as Rahm Emanuel listens at right while President-elect Barack Obama spoke during a news conference in Washington.
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The media have long been fascinated by Rahm Emanuel.

Whether as a young but senior staffer in the Clinton White House, a member of the House leadership, and now chief of staff in the Obama White House, Mr. Emanuel has always been the take-no-prisoners politico about whom no story seems too far-fetched.

Enter Eric Massa, the just-resigned Democratic member of Congress who claimed, on his way out the door, that Emanuel confronted him in the shower at the House gym for not supporting President Obama’s policies. Mr. Massa also claimed that Democratic leaders forced him out of Congress because he opposed healthcare reform. House majority leader Steny Hoyer called Massa’s accusation “absurd.” (For more on Massa's departure, click here.)

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On Fox News’s “Glenn Beck” show late Tuesday afternoon, Massa said that, in fact, he was not “forced out.” He said he “forced himself out.” “I failed,” he said. “I didn’t live up to my own codes.”

The White House broke its silence on the matter Tuesday morning, when spokesman Robert Gibbs declared on ABC that “the whole story is ridiculous.”

According to The Washington Post, allegations against Massa that he sexually harassed a male staffer verbally now include alleged physical harassment of multiple male staffers. In his Fox appearance, Massa described tickle fights with staffers but said he “did nothing sexual.”

As the scandal around Massa grows, the Emanuel angle may recede. But the larger – and ultimately much more consequential – narrative of the future of the Obama presidency, as the White House makes its final push to pass healthcare reform, features Emanuel as a central character.

Two dominant, competing story lines have spun out in the press: In one, Emanuel is the shrewd tactician whom Mr. Obama should have heeded more closely in his first year, on issues such as healthcare reform (the bill should have been smaller) and on the pledge to close the Guantánamo Bay prison camp in one year (bad idea). In the other, it is Emanuel who has made a hash of Obama’s first year in office and should get the boot.

Usually, when competing blind quotes start showing up all over Washington media, that’s a sign of a once-well-oiled White House machine in need of a tuneup. During the presidential campaign, Team Obama was indeed a well-oiled machine. Emanuel was not part of the campaign. But, analysts say, that does not necessarily mean Emanuel is the problem. It just proves, once again, that it’s harder to be president than run for president.

How does “no-drama Obama” feel about all the turmoil? Mr. Gibbs says, “The president is not focused on palace intrigue.” But there have also been reports that Obama has asked his senior advisers to quit the “finger-pointing and intrigue.”

The salacious details of the Massa mess have only served to further distract attention from Obama’s efforts to drive home health reform. He delivered a rousing campaign-style address in Philadelphia on Monday, and on Wednesday, he heads to St. Louis for another healthcare speech. But the cable chatter has been all about the retired Navy man with a penchant for admitted “salty language,” and perhaps more.

If Obama succeeds in passing healthcare reform, the palace intrigue will die down. If not, let the media feeding frenzy begin.

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