So far, there have only been a few major staff positions officially announced by the incumbent Obama administration. Most aren’t too surprising – John Podesta, President Clinton’s former Chief of Staff, as head of the transition team. David Axelrod, chief strategist for the successful campaign, as personal assistant to the President.
The one which has gotten the most ink is the announcement that Rahm Emanuel, congressman from Illinois, would be the new Chief of Staff.
As Yglesias, among others, have noted, it’s a bit ironic, as Emanuel is the basis for the character of Josh Lyman on The West Wing. At the end of the show, the winner of the election to succeed President Bartlett was Matt Santos, played by Jimmy Smits, a character that the writers have admitted was based on Barack Obama. After winning the election, Santos names Josh to be his new chief of staff. And so, we now have life imitating art, which was, in a way, imitating life.
But, more to the point, what does Emanuel’s appointment tell us about the Obama Administration?
As with the previous question, that of whether the ’08 elections represented a Democratic mandate, in some ways the answer to this question will only be apparent some years from now. But, at the least, it tells us that President-Elect Obama knows his history, and is willing to learn from the mistakes of past administrations. Reams of reviews have been written about the mistakes made in the early days of the Clinton administration. Many of the mistakes were unavoidable, as there was simply no apparatus in place for Clinton to grab a hold of and bring into place. The previous Democratic president had been Jimmy Carter, and he was not exactly wildly successful, so they were left to figure out a lot of things from first principles, never a way to ensure getting something right on the first try.
But a large piece of the problem was with the way the Administration was staffed – by bringing in a bunch of young, energetic, academic types, discounting the value of previous governmental experience in lieu of intelligence and verve. Needless to say, this team made a host of mistakes borne of lack of knowledge about the way governments actually work.
And so, in this way, Emanuel is an excellent choice, as far as I am concerned. He is certainly smart, and loyal, and energetic, all necessary features to a COS. But he also had an important position in the White House, and has been an important member of the House for a few years, helping lead the successful effort to elect more Democrats to the House in 2006. Also, he is not one to shy from bloodying his knuckles a little bit, when the circumstances call for it. According to a great profile in Slate, he once mailed a dead fish to a pollster who had angered him.
I also learned there that Ari Gold, the agent in Entourage, is based on Rahm’s brother Ari, and I learned from Wikipedia that he has a younger adopted sister. Brother #1 is a famous Hollywood agent, #2 is now the Chief of Staff to the President-Elect of the United States. Yeah, no pressure to live up to those standards, or anything. Yikes.
Anyhow. Most everything I know about the running of an administration, I know from watching The West Wing, and so, when I think of the Chief of Staff, I think of Leo McGarry, and what personality characteristics he had that made him good at his job. He seemed to know everyone who mattered at every level of government, something Emanuel is undoubtedly well-placed to have done. He was ruthless – once President Bartlet made a decision, Leo did everything in his power to make sure that decision was executed faithfully and fully, even when he disagreed with it. He knew the ins and outs of affairs both foreign and domestic. In all, these all seem to be characteristics that I think Emanuel has, at the least, a very high likelihood of holding.
Now, of course, it’s not as if every personnel decision that the Obama administration makes will be a good one, or one that I agree with. But so far, the big ones have looked pretty good, so I have faith going forwards that they will continue to do things quickly, but carefully, just as they have all through the campaign. Which reminds me of my next question – what can we learn about politics from the outcome of the election?