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Should Obama Have Listened More to Axelrod? To Rahm? Geithner?

[Guest post by Noam Scheiber:]

I just wanted to offer up a quick thought on some of the reactions to my David Axelrod profile in the current issue.

For example, over at Politico, Ben Smith writes:

Noam Scheiber captures the mood of the White House in a sympathetic profile of David Axelrod, which suggests that he understood Obama's promise better than the President did, and should have been listened to on -- particularly -- symbolic questions like the decision not to limit the pay of bailed-out bankers, rein in the AIG bonuses, or flatly oppose earmarks.

I do think there have been moments when the president should have listened more to Axelrod, just like there have been moments when he should have listened more to Rahm (see my discussion in this Rahm profile back in March), and moments when he should have listened more to Tim Geithner or Larry Summers.

But I’d add the following: Just because you would have preferred that the president side with Axelrod over Rahm, or Rahm over Geithner, in any particular moment, doesn’t mean those guys should have been arguing something different. Take health care. However you feel about the deals Rahm cut with interest groups to advance the legislation (and I actually thought they were the right way to go about it), you can hardly blame the guy charged with passing health care for cutting deals. Now, at some point, you may have wanted the president to step in and say the deal-making is getting out of hand. But Rahm was doing the job he was given, and doing it pretty well, I think.

Similarly—and maybe more counter-intuitively—I don’t think you can fault Geithner and Summers for being against reneging on those disastrous AIG retention bonuses back in March 2009. I don’t think you want the guys you’ve hired to manage the economy arguing internally for abrogating contracts—you want them giving you principled economic advice. If it turns out their advice needs to be overridden at a higher level, fine—that’s how the process should work. But you’d hate to have them taking big political judgments into their own hands.

In fact, I can’t think of very many instances in which the senior people around the president—whether policy people or political—have given him bad advice based on what they knew at the time and the particular hat they happened to be wearing. (This administration’s pet term for the latter is “equities”—as in, different people argue from a different set of equities based on their respective portfolios.) Obviously, the challenge for any president is to decide which set of “equities” trumps the others at any given moment. And, while this is never easy, I think it’s made governing unusually challenging during the last two years. Not only are the political and substantive imperatives frequently pulling in opposite directions, but you have different political imperatives pulling strongly in different directions, and different substantive ones pulling strongly in different directions (for example, deficit-reduction versus additional stimulus).

Or even self-contradictory directions. My favorite example of this came by way of an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in June. Asked what the government’s top priority should be, 33 percent of respondents said “job creation and economic growth” while only 15 percent said the “deficit and government spending.” But when asked whether they’d prefer that the government rein in the deficit even if it delays the recovery, or whether they’d prefer the government to focus on the recovery even if it worsens the deficit, the respondents picked the former by nearly a two-to-one margin. I mean, what do you do with that?

All of which is to say, it’s always tempting to argue that Obama should be listening more to adviser X. (And, mea culpa, some of the pieces I’ve written have certainly encouraged that habit.) But, in the end, the president usually has to balance a bunch of advice that, at least on its own terms, is pretty defensible. Which is why the choices end up being so damn unpalatable.