Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Gatekeeper

In his essay at Docudharma Friday A Progressive/Liberal Agenda Buhdydharma initiated some discussion of what changes would be considered and desired to be included by progressives as an agenda to be lobbied for to Barack Obama as he takes up his new job as President, and people offered a range of ideas, many based on rolling back things that George Bush had instituted during his eight years in office.

As distasteful as it may be to many quite possibly the most important thing to be considered in developing such an agenda is not what people might want, but what is going to be politically possible to achieve with an Obama presidency. The dark spirit of political pragmatism rears its ugly head here, since there is little point, though I'd be the last to say no point, in asking for things that are not politically likely.

Which raises the questions, what or who will determine politically what is possible to achieve? What are the roadblocks? Who will be standing in the road fending off or screening all comers to Obama with requests?

Who do you have to please? Who do you have to get past? Who will decide whether Obama even hears your pleas? Who will set the tone, at least initially, for Obamas presidency?

The White House Chief of Staff is the second highest-ranking member of the Executive Office of the President of the United States and a senior aide to the President. Some individuals who have held the position, including Sherman Adams, have been dubbed "The Second-Most Powerful Man in Washington" due to the nature of the job.

The duties of the White House Chief of Staff vary greatly from one administration to another. However, the chief of staff has been responsible for overseeing the actions of the White House staff, managing the president's schedule, and deciding who is allowed to meet with the president. Because of these duties, the Chief of Staff has at various times been dubbed "The Gatekeeper" and "The Co-President". (wikipedia)

In a WSJ article this morning a story about Obama's incoming White House Chief of Staff makes it clear what to expect initially from Obama, and by omission what not to expect as he makes it clear that he will do his utmost too keep Obama reined in as a center right Democrat.

Basically a play it safe non progressive administration. And perhaps much worse that that.

In Rahm Emanuel's telling, the Democratic victories on Tuesday were a continuum of what began in the 2006 midterm elections, when his party won majorities in the House and the Senate for the first time in 12 years.
Recently, I spoke with Mr. Emanuel during a short layover at the Detroit airport. Officially, he hadn't yet been offered the new post, and when queried about the prospect of serving in the Obama White House he demurred. But Mr. Emanuel, who turns 49 later this month, was eager to discuss Congress's agenda going forward. He explained how Democrats can avoid the mistakes that felled the Republican majority, and he reflected on the lessons learned as a high-ranking member of President Clinton's brain trust in the 1990s.

Asked what Barack Obama was elected to do, and what legislation he's likely to find on his Oval Office desk soonest, Mr. Emanuel didn't hesitate. "Bucket one would have children's health care, Schip," he said. "It has bipartisan agreement in the House and Senate. It's something President-elect Obama expects to see. Second would be [ending current restrictions on federally funded] stem-cell research. And third would be an economic recovery package focused on the two principles of job creation and tax relief for middle-class families."

The last time a Democratic president's party also ran Congress was 1992. Just two years later, however, voters changed their mind about that arrangement and gave the GOP control of the House and Senate. Mr. Emanuel said he's not at all concerned that the party will overplay its hand this time. He insisted that his caucus is mindful of what happened to Democrats in 1994 and the Republican Congress in 2006.
"the lesson is to do what you got elected to do," said Mr. Emanuel. "Do what you talked about on the campaign. If you got elected, that's what people expect. Don't go off on tangents where part of your party is demanding an ideological litmus test. Neither of those things was part of the campaign."
So I asked Mr. Emanuel if the election of an unabashed liberal like Mr. Obama has made the New Democrat strategy obsolete. Perhaps what we witnessed on Tuesday means that liberalism is ascendant and the U.S. is no longer a center-right nation. "I think the country is incredibly pragmatic," he responded. "Pragmatic and progressive. But you still have to mix and match different approaches to reach your objectives. You have to be flexible."

He said the similarities between Barack Obama and the last Democratic president matter more than the differences. "Both Barack and Bill Clinton have an incredible connection to the public," he said. "Both ran on a message of hope. Both ran against failed policies that let the country down prior to them being elected. I don't think the country is yearning for an ideological answer. If anything it's the opposite. They want real solutions to real problems. And if we do an ideological test, we will fail. Our challenge is to work to solve the actual problems that the country is facing, not work to satisfy any constituency or ideological wing of the party."

So who is this guy? Who is Rahm Emanual? What does he want and stand for? What is his vision of an Obama presidency? What has he done in the past that will give some clues as to how he will operate as "Co-President"?

David Swanson is the creator of, the Washington Director of and co-founder of the coalition; a board member of Progressive Democrats of America; of the Backbone Campaign; and of Voters for Peace. He serves on a working group of United for Peace and Justice. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and as a communications director, with jobs including Press Secretary for Dennis Kucinich's 2004 presidential campaign.

A couple of days ago he spoke with Real News CEO Paul Jay about the ramifications of Emanual in the Chief of Staff position.

You may not much like what he had to say.