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Rahm Was The Only Choice, Not Just The Right Choice

Some time last week, as we were putting together our Obama power list, it occurred to me that Obama had a problem: He didn't have anybody around him who had the combination of policy chops, Hill knowledge, and the understanding of how to mobilize voters that he'll need to pass major initiatives like healthcare reform. Some people, like Obama's Senate chief of staff Pete Rouse, know the Hill backwards and forwards. Some, like policy advisers Jason Furman, Heather Higginbottom, and Austan Goolsbee, know their wonkery cold. And some, like campaign manager David Plouffe, know how to build a grassroots army. Heck, Obama even has people--like Tom Daschle--who can touch two of these three bases. (Daschle obviously knows the Hill and has made himself into a real healthcare expert.) But, after huddling with my colleagues, none of us could think of anyone who combined all three.

That is, until we got to Rahm.

Rahm is one of the wonkiest members of Congress. (See, for example, the book he recently co-authored with Bruce Reed.) He's obviously well-acquainted with the nuances of the legislative process. And, having successfully run the DCCC, the House Democrats' campaign arm, he knows how to harness the power of voters in every corner of the country.  

This last point is especially key (though, again, not enough on its own). As we point out in our introduction to the power list, Obama has built the most powerful and sophisticated grassroots infrastructure of any presidential candidate in history. Not only would it be a shame not to exploit it to enact Obama's policy agenda. Given the potential opposition to something like healthcare reform, it's hard to see how it gets passed without using that infrastructure.

Only Rahm has the skill set to tie that piece of the effort to the legislative and substantive pieces. For example, you can imagine Rahm in a meeting with a recalcitrant senator, using Obama's machine--i.e., the ability to raise millions of dollars or mobilize millions of online supporters with a single e-mail--as leverage. (Fortunately, it doesn't look like that senator is going to be Max Baucus.) More broadly, you can see Rahm incorporating that machine into his overall legislative strategy--say, figuring out which key senators and congressmen would be most vulnerable to grassroots pressure when drawing up the master plan.

Now, it's true, you don't necessarily need the person who plays this role to be your chief of staff. Karl Rove performed essentially the same function for Bush and, officially, he was never more senior than deputy chief of staff. On the other hand, the only way to get Rahm involved was to give him the top job--you wouldn't walk away from rising-stardom and a leadership position in the House for anything less. So, in this case, you effectively needed that person to be your chief of staff.  

Just two more quick thoughts:

1.) Democratic critics of the pick argue that Rahm's reputation as a partisan, polarizing figure undercuts Obama's promise to change Washington. Or, more to the point, they worry that voters will conclude as much. Set aside the question of whether or not Rahm actually is polarizing. (I don't think he is--as Chris Orr put it to me earlier, he may be personally polarizing on some level, but he's one of the few people on the Hill with ties to factions across the ideological spectrum.) Even if he were, I'm just not sure the public looks to your chief-of-staff pick as an indication of whether or not you're changing the tone. High-level cabinet appointments maybe. And I'd definitely reserve a few key cabinet slots for people viewed as nonpartisan and non-polarizing. But, by and large, the White House staff isn't your public face.

2.) Speaking of high-level cabinet appointments, does this make Larry Summers less likely as Treasury Secretary? It's not just that, if Obama picked Summers, he'd suddenly have two people in very senior positions who don't quite fit his "no drama" mantra. It's that he'd have two people who don't quite fit the "no drama" mold as two of his first appointments. Worse, he'd have two people whose mere announcements (to say nothing of their actual tenures) stirred up more than a little drama--Rahm because of his public anguishing and Summers because of the lefty mau-mauing he's already inspiring.

The treatment of Summers is completely unfair, and bound to get even more so (I'll have more to say about that tomorrow). But the reality is you only want so many bad, appointment-related, news cycles out of the gate. Team Obama may decide it's had all it needs at this point.

Update: A couple of commenters have argued that, if Summers is really the best man for the job, Obama should go ahead and pick him and deal with whatever uproar it provokes. He's making a decision that's going to affect the country for years, after all. What's a few bad news cycles?

I agree. My point was positive rather than normative--I was just speculating about the calculus within Obamaland. My sense is that it's a close call between Summers and Tim Geithner, in which case these marginal considerations can make a difference.

Update II: Don't miss this nice Rahm piece from Ben Smith and John Harris.

--Noam Scheiber