WASHINGTON--"I am not like carving out little pieces of his presidency to get my agenda done," Rahm Emanuel told me when we talked about his year as President Obama's chief of staff. He knew exactly why he was in the White House and what his job was. Emanuel added, "This is all his presidency, his agenda, and that is who I am serving."
I pulled out my Jan. 11 interview with Emanuel as recent stories and columns in the Washington Post triggered snowballing pundit chatter about the tenure of Emanuel, a former Chicago congressman. This is a new narrative, and it is frustrating the Obama White House, which is not used to such drama.
It comes as Obama's approval ratings are low and he has make-or-break votes on health-care reform in Congress and faces challenges in closing the Guantanamo Bay military prison and trying terrorist suspects who are currently being held there. Things are tense in the Obama White House. There have been disagreements. But that's different from suggesting there are substantive rifts within the close-knit group.
Last Monday, I learned, Obama made clear to senior staff -- in an Oval Office meeting after he returned from a trip to Savannah, Ga. -- that he didn't like these stories. He reminded them that it is "one for all and all for one'' in his administration. They were there to get things done for the nation, and they were not in the White House to engage in what Obama considered petty Washington intrigue.
This episode was triggered by Post columnist Dana Milbank in a Feb. 21 piece titled "Why Obama Needs Rahm," a rebuttal to those who blamed Emanuel for Obama's struggles. Milbank concluded that Obama would not be in trouble if he had taken Emanuel's advice. Milbank wrote, "Obama's first year fell apart in large part because he didn't follow his chief of staff's advice on crucial matters."
He also poked at the other Chicago pals who, along with Emanuel, are in Obama's inner circle. Senior advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett are "in love with the president," wrote Milbank, in contrast to the pragmatic Emanuel.
Milbank's column was followed by a Feb. 27 Colbert King column in the Post, "What price Emanuel?" Then, the attention grabber: a front page, above-the-fold news story in the Tuesday Post headlined "Hotheaded Emanuel may be the voice of reason."
The Post's David Broder zinged his Post colleagues in his Thursday column, "The fable of Emanuel the Great," where he concluded that portraying Obama as a "screw-up" but for Emanuel was "remarkable fiction."
Coming on the heels of the pending departure of White House social secretary Desiree Rogers, another Obama friend from Chicago, the speculation about Emanuel fits into a growing storyline in the national press about the Chicagoans in the White House. I've seen versions of this movie before: the Texans who came with George W. Bush and the Arkansas folks who arrived with Bill Clinton.
No matter what, Emanuel and Axelrod have already said they may leave after two years. Jarrett is in for the long haul and holds a unique position in the Obama White House.
She is a personal friend of Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, so close they have vacationed together in the last year in Hawaii and Martha's Vineyard with other friends. Jarrett is a trusted adviser, not unlike Bobby Kennedy, who was attorney general under his brother, President John F. Kennedy.
Former Commerce Secretary William Daley, who served under Clinton -- Mayor Daley's brother and a close Axelrod and Emanuel friend -- told me he talked to Emanuel.
"I think he finds it somewhat humorous that people are running around talking about what he supposedly said or did or his positions,'' Daley said. "I think he's more focused on and more concerned on passing health care, getting the economy back, the sort of stuff that really matters in the long run."
Axelrod told me in an e-mail, "Rahm's been my great friend for almost 30 years and will be forever. I think his efforts as [chief of staff] have been heroic and prodigious. He has loyally and faithfully executed the President's vision."
Said Daley, "All of this stuff is gibberish in the scheme of a four-year term and what is meaningful for the country."