Rahm Emanuel: Why is he really leaving?

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
In this June 26, 2010 file, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is pictured at the G20 summit in Toronto.

"I made more decisions in half a day as governor than you can make in a whole week in the Senate."

I thought about that quote from former Senate Republican George Allen when I heard that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was leaving. After all, why would someone who holds the second-most powerful job in America leave to run for mayor of Chicago? Isn't that like a CEO leaving his post to become a mid-level marketing manager?

Sour mood at the White House

Not when you're convinced Washington is broken. Here's how Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson sums up the White House sentiment about DC:

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, with typical delicacy, calls it "F---nutsville," a judgment that earthier tea party activists might share. Senior adviser David Axelrod has announced his spring departure. "I think he's not having fun," says a White House colleague. A recent profile claims that Axelrod's idealism was disappointed by "a ferociously stubborn, possibly irredeemable system." And Barack Obama himself constantly complains about the "politicking" and obstructionism of the capital city, where they "talk about me like a dog." Much of the senior staff of the White House seems to long for a purer, simpler, more wholesome kind of politics ... in Chicago.

The prospect of large Republican gains in the midterm elections has no doubt soured the White House mood a bit. But the disillusionment goes deeper, reflecting the tension between President Obama's brand of campaigning and the realities of governing.

Tensions between campaigning and governing

Barack Obama campaigned as a community organizer, someone uniquely suited to unite Americans and bring a new kind of politics in Washington. As he put it when he was preparing his presidential bid way back in January 2007: "Our leaders in Washington seem incapable of working together in a practical, common-sense way. Politics has become so bitter and partisan, so gummed up by money and influence, that we can't tackle the big problems that demand solutions. And that's what we have to change first.”

That's why many observers, especially Obama admirers, were surprised when he picked Mr. Emanuel to be chief of staff. Emanuel's gruff, take-charge style didn't exactly foreshadow a "new kind of politics." Rather, it seemed to be an admission by Obama that what he needed to pass his ambitious agenda wasn't wholesome harmony but willpower.

The record of the past two years arguably proves him right: Health-care reform is but one of several major bills that passed largely through sheer force of Democratic will and legislative legerdemain.

Yet even the most powerful of pit bulls can be chafed by Washington's multiple leashes: a determined and obstinate minority party, bad polling numbers, special interests, stubborn senators, filibusters, and so on. Hence the lament: Washington is broken.

Is Washington really broken?

But is it really? Structurally, the federal government was designed to slow the pace of change, and limit the ability of any one branch of government to reshape America. Critics are right to complain about Washington's "bitter partisanship" and "special-interest money" but they're wrong to see it as some kind of artificial poison. Increasing partisanship and lobbying are rational, natural outcomes of the federal government's rising influence in virtually every area of American life.

Put simply, as Washington's power grows, so does the volume of the voices of interest groups seeking to harness – or hinder – that power for their own interests.

That's why presidents often wish they were kings or dictators. Recall George W. Bush's comment from December 2000, after he met with congressional leaders just weeks before becoming president: "I told all four that there were going to be some times where we don't agree with each other. But that's OK. If this were a dictatorship, it'd be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I'm the dictator."

Which brings us back to Emanuel's job shift. In American politics, the direct executive clout enjoyed by a big-city mayor is the closest you can get to being a dictator. So Emanuel may be giving up a big title. But if he wins the mayoral campaign, he may soon wield much more power.

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