In an interview on the PBS News Hour, the President's Chief of Staff demonstrates the difference between being brainy and empathic--a problem that is becoming crucial to the White House.
On a mission to shore up Barack Obama's image as a decisive leader, Rahm Emanuel patronizes Jim Lehrer, a journalistic icon, as he tries to pin down the President's direct involvement in such issues as the Russian spy swap and the decision to sue Arizona over its punitive new immigration law.
Verbally juggling an imperceptible difference between the Chief Executive's "approval of" and "being briefed" on Justice Department decisions (to avoid saying the President ordered or signed off on the actions), Emanuel ends up, under Lehrer's persistent questioning, telling him, "I feel like I'm dealing with my children on their homework."
It's tempting to see such bad behavior as a matter of temperament or as a generational difference between Emanuel, a brash 59-year-old Boomer, and Lehrer, 76, a former Marine who, as a Dallas reporter, spent a week in 1963 covering the death of a President.
But the encounter suggests something more--the inability of the Obama White House to surmount an emotional tide of disapproval in the wake of a struggling economy, two ongoing wars and an environmental disaster that is being seen 24/7 on TV screens.
After sparring with Lehrer, Emanuel makes a plausible case for Presidential decisiveness in dealing with the financial crisis, the Detroit rescue and even McChrystal's firing, while grudgingly acknowledging public unhappiness: "It is understandable for their frustration because of their own economic conditions."
But the approval numbers and the November election polls won't be changed by such rational analysis. Barack Obama is not a Bill Clinton "I feel your pain" president but, with a Rahm Emanuel face for his Administration, he won't get very far making the case that, although things are still bad, they would have been much worse if he had not done what he did.
As he has been doing on the stump this week, the President is better off doing that himself.