The intelligent layer of the blogosphere is abuzz in the wake of a searing account of White House dysfunction by Edward Luce of the Financial Times. The piece is titled the “Fearsome Foursome” and must be read carefully by anyone who wants to understand why the Obama presidency is in such deep political trouble. Political scientist Steve Clemons at the New America Foundation gave the piece a needed booster shot when it was at first ignored by the MSM. Now it is going viral, at least as far as serious journalism can these days.
The core of Luce’s argument, based on extensive interviews of Washington insiders who, in this case, seem to both know and to have talked, is that Obama has surrounded himself with a core inner circle made up of Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod, Robert Gibbs, and Rahm Emanuel. Instead of directly relating to his professional staff and cabinet, as have almost all modern Presidents before him, Obama seems to filter everything through this inner group to insure “political correctness” instead of policy sense. Luce characterizes this as a tension between campaigning and governing.
Although Rahm Emanuel is the member of the foursome that everyone loves to hate, Jarrett, of course, is no doubt primus inter pares in the group given the longstanding close relationship she has had with the Obamas over more than two decades. The centrality of Jarrett’s role in Obama’s rise to power was brought home in the new book Game Change which notes that when Obama wanted to use black Berkeley Law Dean Chris Edley to beat up on his white staff (including Axelrod and Gibbs) the deed was done at Jarrett’s Chicago home. This meant, of course, that more than likely Edley was already there when the white boys arrived and received their dressing down from Dean Edley. One only wishes he would do the same to war criminal John Yoo, who continues to mislead young American law students in Edley’s classrooms in Berkeley.
In fact, Edley may have already been called in to the White House to play a similar race baiting role. He told the Times of London recently that the Obama team has grown “complacent” and he lays the lion’s share of the blame at the door of the irascible Emanuel.
But another point needs to be made about the Luce story. It is about what is not said rather than what is said in the story and it is something that might go a long way to explaining the glue that holds the “fearsome foursome” together, or, rather, why Obama continues to use this odd governance structure despite its inherent problems.
There is quite likely a fifth man at work in the Obama inner circle, SEIU President Andy Stern. As is widely known, Stern has visited the White House more than any other single non Administration official. But no one has explained why Stern is so crucial to the Administration. Health care is a big issue to Obama and so are jobs, and of course any union leader would be concerned about those two issues. But do either of them require some two dozen visits to the White House, at least, over the last year? Not likely.
Here is a possible explanation: Stern is busy plotting the political future of the Democratic party and of Obama as well. What leads me to this suggestion? Consider the following:
SEIU’s California State Council, with some 700,000 members, recently lost its very popular Executive Director, Courtni Sunjoo Pugh. Pugh, who is of Asian/Pacific Islander descent, is an up and coming political operative and labor movement staffer, who began her career in Chicago working for Rep. Danni Davis, of Chicago’s west side and later Sen. Dick Durbin. She then joined the labor movement and became political director first for the LA County Federation of Labor and then for SEIU in California before being elevated a little over a year ago to the top job in SEIU California.
But then Pugh was suddenly yanked back to D.C. by Stern to head up a national campaign on Congressional redistricting. That suggests, of course, that redistricting – which happens every ten years after the national Census is taken – is seen as critical to Stern. Stern has built SEIU, in large part, on patronizing racialist appeals to low wage immigrant workers, many of them Hispanic and Asian. This demographic group is seen by SEIU as critical to swinging a majority in numerous Congressional races. One of Stern’s top hench men, Eliseo Medina, spoke recently of the possibility of 8 million new voters for the Democrats by placing illegal workers in the US on a “path to citizenship.” He argued to a progressive DC conference last summer that this new immigrant voter bloc could help create a “governing coalition” for the long term. Another key SEIU official, Tom Balanoff, was an early close ally of Obama from his perch as head of Illinois SEIU. Balanoff is an offspring of the “Fighting Balanoffs,” a legendary Communist Party labor movement family from the south side of Chicago.
One of the staffers Stern has met with at the White House is Jim Messina, who works under Rahm Emanuel, and is, in part, tasked with oversight of political races. Messina is from the west, and has worked on political campaigns in Montana and South Dakota. He would likely be very interested in strategies where the Democrats could increase their leverage relying on the new voters that Stern and SEIU can help recruit.
A race based strategy to win control of a restructured Democratic party could be the glue that holds together Obama’s inner circle. It would be consistent with the race based politics of Obama from his days of mentoring by the likes of Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, both of whom view “white supremacy,” as a critical feature of modern American life, to the recruitment by Jarrett of Van Jones, who argues that America’s prisons are “slave ships on dry land.” It would also be consistent with the idea of a “metro not retro” strategy that some think influenced the way that Obama engineered his victory over Hillary Clinton and John McCain.
Thus, what others may see as “dysfunction” the Obama team may see as a “long march” to restructure the Democratic party and American politics itself. That the team does not discuss this openly should not be a surprise.
There is an old German saying, which came from the leader of the fin de siecle German labor movement who felt that party intellectuals celebrating the conservative turn in the German working class were inviting too much attention: “Was man tut, sagt man nichts,” loosely translated, don’t talk about what you are doing, just do it.
Painting a target on the back of Rahm Emanuel may be a very good way to draw attention away from the role of Obama’s Fifth Man.