Progressives’ anger grows against White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel

Jon Ward Contributor
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A remarkable thing is happening to Rahm Emanuel: he is losing his aura of invincibility.

A year ago, Emanuel was the untouchable attack dog for a president on top of the world.

Now, according to some liberal critics, he is “a cowardly, petty, small-minded thug.”

Discontent among liberal progressives against President Obama’s chief of staff has been bubbling for some time. It’s now nearing a boiling point.

And the narrative emerging from those who hate Emanuel is far different from the one that has been built up over the last few years about the political knife fighter from Chicago.

“The beltway crowd thinks of him as rough and tumble,” said a well-placed leader in the netroots community.

“Progressives see him as weak-kneed because they don’t think he’s fighting for them on anything really.”

Few in the Obama administration appeared more formidable than Emanuel did a year ago as the new president entered the White House. He was recruited out of his congressional leadership position by Obama, who wanted only Emanuel to run his White House.

He was regarded as a fearsome political force, the enforcer and implementer of the Obama agenda, as “Rahmbo.” Profiles were written conveying that though Emanuel had matured somewhat since his somewhat wilder days in the Clinton White House, he still had the edge that made him so feared by many.

The story of Emanuel in 1992, after Bill Clinton was elected president, driving a steak knife into a table and shouting, “Dead!” over and over as he named off political enemies, was told again and again.

That story is now being reinterpreted by the ascendant liberal grassroots, which has grown disillusioned with the Obama White House.

“You’re not a tough guy if your first thought upon assuming the power of the presidency is to take it and use it to punish your enemies. You’re a cowardly, petty, small-minded thug,” said Jane Hamsher, founder of Firedoglake, a liberal blog that has been one of the most vocal critics of the health-care bill.

“I’m sure Rahm spreads it around to promote the myth of himself as a rebel and a fighter, but most people experience ‘that guy’ as a brown-nose for power willing to bully on behalf of the status quo,” Hamsher said in an e-mail to the Daily Caller.

Progressives blame Emanuel for most of the compromises they most detest: deals with drug and insurance companies on health-care reform, the continuation of many Bush-era counterterrorism measures, pushing many issues most important to the gay rights community to the back burner and working closely with Wall Street to keep large firms from failing.

A senior White House official defended Emanuel in an e-mail: “He has led this administration in accomplishing a series of important progressive achievements that languished for years before President Obama was elected: expanding SCHIP, tobacco regulation, credit card reforms, banning torture, the Ledbetter Equal Pay Act.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Maryland Democrat who took the reins of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from Emanuel in 2008, also defended his former House leadership colleague.

“Rahm Emanuel’s blend of policy smarts and political acumen helped Democrats win the House in 2006,” Van Hollen said in a statement. “It is important to have a seasoned hand on deck to assist the President in navigating choppy political waters.”

The White House official added: “Rahm is not an ideologue. He is a pragmatist.”

That is exactly why many on the left don’t like Rahm. They think he does not care much, if at all, for their ideological and policy goals. He is, they say, driven by one thing: power.

“People see Rahm as somebody who just wants to get something done, he’s willing to get something done at any cost,” said a senior Democratic political operative.

And progressives feel that Rahm has disrespected them and taken their support for granted.

“He comes from the Clinton school of fighting, which is scream at liberals, deal with Republicans,” said a netroots think tanker.

Most disconcerting for many on the left is their concern that Emanuel’s behavior may, in fact, be supported by the president they helped elect.

“The tough question for people like us is to what extent is he reflecting the preferences of his boss.”