Carol Felsenthal
On politics

‘Double Down’ Dishes on Rahm, Daley, and More Chicagoans in the White House

How the mayor, the ex-mayor’s brother, the First Lady, and others got along (or didn’t) behind the scenes.

The White House

Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Double Down, published Tuesday, has already garnered volumes of advance publicity.

Relying on pre-publication leaks, I wrote last week about Bill Daley’s gambit in 2011 to poll and focus-group test a possible swap of Hillary Clinton for Joe Biden as Obama’s 2012 running mate. Today I’m checking on other Chicagoans—warning: Bill Daley makes a return appearance here—who weave in and out of the bestselling (#4 on Amazon) account of the 2012 Obama/Romney battle.

Here’s a sample of the juiciest Chicago-related tidbits that Halperin/Heilemann [hereafter referred to as H/H] collected from the 500 interviews they conducted for the fast-moving, anecdote-packed, behind-the-scenes look at a campaign I thought I had figured out but really hadn’t.
 

David Axelrod

Obama’s long-time message guru, who arrived at the White House with the new President in 2009, described by H/H as recognizable by his “slouch[y] stance” and his “sauce-splattered tie.” Businessmen who felt dismissed by Obama’s team saw Axelrod, H/H write, as “a combination of Trotsky and Rasputin, spouting class warfare on TV.” The President and the First Lady viewed him as alarmingly disorganized, and the President, concluding that Axelrod was “burned out,” ordered him home to Chicago months before Axelrod was ready to leave the White House. According to H/H, Obama, who arguably owed his presidency to Axelrod, “… betrayed little emotion as he ushered [him] out the door.”
 

Rahm Emanuel

Obama’s first chief of staff, another Chicago guy who would have been dismissed by Obama had he not left first to run for mayor of Chicago. The White House “dynamic” under Rahm’s tenure was, H/H write, “wildly dysfunctional … Tactics frequently trumped strategy… infighting and leaking … much of it revolving around Valerie Jarrett [see below], whose relationship to the first couple inspired envy and enmity … Michelle was unhappy.”
 

Valerie Jarrett

Senior adviser to the President and protector/older sister figure to both Michelle and Barack. H/H write that Wall Streeters, whose money Obama needed for his reelection, “disparaged Obama’s team for lacking anyone with a meaningful background in the private sector. When Jarrett would huff, ‘Well I have one,’ they rolled their eyes; they considered her a political hack, ineffectual and entitled.” Her relationship to Michelle made her untouchable and unimpeachable. H/H write that Michelle watched MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” every morning while working out and “then fired off agitated emails to Jarrett about what this or that talking head had said.”
 

Marty Nesbitt

Chicago businessman and the President’s best friend. When the job got Obama down, as it often did, Obama required Nesbitt’s companionship. In 2012, after performing miserably at the first debate in Denver, Obama unhappily was prepping for the second. The session went so poorly that his aides dubbed it the “Mock from Hell.”  The President was “disengaged and pedantic” during the practice and angry after it. His aides emerged “ashen [faced].” With Marty Nesbitt in tow, Obama returned to his “sprawling quarters” at a hotel in Williamsburg, Virginia “to watch football and play cards.” 

H/H write that Michelle had instructed senior adviser David Plouffe that, during these debates which her husband despised and resented having to do, “if the President wants our chef there, he should be there; if he wants Marty Nesbitt there, he should be there. Barack’s food, downtime, exercise, sleep, lodging—all of it affects his frame of mind. Plouffe saluted sharply….”  

(Sidelight: Michelle also warned Plouffe that Barack “had to speak from the gut, in language that regular folks could understand … Michelle’s advisers paraphrased her advice as ‘It’s not about David Brooks; it’s about my mother.’” Michelle told “a small group of female bundlers” that her husband had lost the first debate because “Romney is a really good liar.”) 
 

Bill Daley

Three months into his short tenure as Rahm’s successor as chief of staff—“a bust,” H/H write—Obama realized he had made a terrible mistake. From the start, Obama told Daley he would have limited hiring and firing authority. Hearing that, Leon Panetta, who had served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, warned Daley, “Oh, you’re fucked.” Daley was hired in part to appease the business community and he was supposed to communicate support for business/jobs on the Sunday shows, but Obama aides “halted his bookings” because he “tested poorly” with focus groups.

Those aides “derided him as an officious dinosaur, mocking him for wanting to be called  ‘Chief.’” Daley was soon stripped of day-to-day management of the White House.  His worst fear—that “the wedding cake is already baked, and I’m just the little plastic groom being put on top”—had come true. Also tasked with improving Obama’s relations with Congress, Daley suggested that the President invite Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and their spouses to Camp David for a weekend getaway. Michelle and her staff vetoed the idea: “Who wanted to be cooped up on a cold day in the woods with Mitch McConnell?”
 

Bill and Joe

Joe Biden, not recognizing that his future was being poll-tested, liked to unwind in the White House with his old buddy Bill Daley. “[They] talked all the time about their alienation from their colleagues…. The COS’s office was across the hall from the VP’s and Daley would often go in there and close the door and the two of them would let loose.… They cackled about the fact that Emanuel referred to Jarrett and [interim COS—between Rahm and Bill—Pete] Rouse as Uday and Qusay, after Saddam Hussein’s power-mad sons…. They admired the President, but marveled at his lack of bonhomie. (‘He doesn’t even now how to swear right,’ Biden complained.)” Bill Daley, in turn, complained about the President’s constant chewing of Nicorette gum in his effort to keep off cigarettes. “Daley would have liked to, but didn’t, chastise his boss, ‘Hey! Enough with the fucking gum.’”
 

Jesse Jackson, Sr.

According to H/H, Jackson was “effectively banned from the White House.” H/H explain that “Obama had little patience for the ‘professional left,’ and vanishingly close to zero for what one of his senior African American aides, Michael Strautmanis, referred to as ‘professional blacks’ (as opposed to black professionals),” and he had, with the exception of congressmen John Lewis and Jim Clybourn, “near as much contempt for the Congressional Black Caucus as he did for the Tea Party Caucus.”
 

The Field Museum

Republican strategist Karl Rove heard from a Chicago businessman that when Newt Gingrich, then competing for the Republican nomination, came to Chicago, he spent his Saturday at the Museum’s dinosaur exhibit. Rove told Greta Van Susteren on her Fox News show, that Gingrich should have been meeting with financial and/or political backers. Gingrich emailed Rove that, unlike George W. or Reagan, he didn’t have a ranch to go to for relaxation.  “Half day at the Field Museum cleared my mind.” Rove replied that W never took Saturdays off during the heat of a campaign, and that a Field board member had been “inclined to support you until he heard about your excursion and concluded you weren’t serious … When you get to be President, you can have the schedule of Nixon, Reagan, 41, or 43, and you’ll find the job doesn’t leave you at the ranch, or Kennebunkport, or Camp David. It just follows you.”
 

Two more takeaways from Double Down

Michelle Obama has a whole lot more than her daughters and her vegetable garden on her mind. She emerges from this book as heavily hands-on, fiercely protective of her husband, and scarily intolerant of anyone who swerves from putting Barack first every hour of every day.  She makes Nancy Reagan look like Pat Nixon. H/H write that the West Wing staff, presumably including the seemingly fearless Rahm Emanuel, “were scared to death” of her.

Serving Obama is a young man’s game. Not only are the important aides/advisors—Plouffe, Dan Pfeiffer, Jim Messina, et al—all young, they are also, with few exceptions, all guys.

And none of the above is from Chicago.

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