Friday, August 7, 2009

The Rahmifications of Emanuel

Soon after Barack Obama won the election, he began announcing his cabinet and staff picks. As soon as I heard that Obama had picked Rahm Emanuel to be his Chief of Staff, I twitched in disbelief. Really? Mr. Hope and Change meets Mr. Fuck and You?

Many friends (and the media) tried to comfort me with the notion that Mr. Nice Guy needed Mr. Tough Guy to rattle the cages and shake the congressional tree. OK, I thought, maybe Obama needs an experienced and feared heavy to cut through the nonsense on Capitol hill.

Now that we're 200 days into the Obama administration, I'm starting to really think that Rahm might be the kryptonite to Obama's Superman. Obama's popularity has been plummeting rapidly over the summer, and his handling of the health care debate is in Bush/Cheney territory in terms of popular support.

The tone was set early by Rahm himself when he said that a crisis should never go to waste. This is such a cynical, anti-Obama campaign sentiment, that it's remarkable that Obama kept him on. But, like all leaders, Obama I'm sure has fallen for the confident, get-it-done, damn-the-torpedoes, I've-been-here-before Chief of Staff that says "don't worry, boss, I've got it all under control for you." Every boss wants to hear that, and will give a lot of leash as a result.

So, here we are, with Mr. Hope and Change now defending his citizenship, his economic stimulus package, his bail-out of GM and of Wall Street, and now his attempt to reform health care. My, how far he's fallen from election day.

If I were to advise the President, I'd offer the following suggestions:

1. Identify and label the pillars that comprise your domestic agenda. Under, the "Rebuilding America" agenda, form the 5 pillars that are critical to success:
  • Making high quality health care affordable for everyone
  • Transforming America's energy policy from black to green
  • Making education a strategic advantage for America's children
  • Regulate the financial industry to avoid future malfeasance
  • Regain our respect and position as a global leader
2. Frame all initiatives, laws, policies and speeches in one of these 5 pillars.
3. In every televised event, put up signage representing one of the pillars to reinforce the theme of the event
4. Whenever attacked, go back to the baseline theme (above) of the issue at hand, and use the same words each time. For instance, if someone says that you're trying to socialize health care, your response would be "No I'm not; I'm trying to make high quality health care affordable for everyone."
5. Continually remind people -- often -- of what you've done so far in each pillar in an effort to fulfill your commitments you made in your campaign. If someone asks why you're looking at health care now instead of the economy, your response should be "because in my campaign, I promised this country that I'd fix health care. I'm not going to back down from my commitments."

Why am I attempting to give the President tips on my blog? Because I think that the approach the administration is taking now (along with congress) might actually damage his ability to lead as President. This is not good for anyone. I've heard that, due to the lack of support from even some Democrats, Obama is not opposed to pushing through his agenda with 50 Senate votes (a procedural vote allows him to do this). This might pass the law, but it will put a large dent in Obama's campaign promise of a "new type of politics in Washington." This kind of hit to his brand will be very difficult to recover from.

So, Mr. President: In the name of following through on our campaign commitments, I advise you not to follow Rahm's advice, and not to accept his style in passing health care reform. I expect that you, as President, will have a strong enough center to use your natural positive leadership skills to successfully navigate this political maze. You cannot afford to approach this the way Rahm would. Yes, he might be effective, but any success achieved his way will exact a much larger toll on your personal brand equity.