“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”
These are the words of Rahm Emanuel. The former chief of staff to President Barack Obama made the remarks when he was the incoming chief of staff, during a 2008 Wall Street Journal business conference.
From there it was clear the administration’s agenda would be bold. America was in crisis mode. The incoming chief of staff was clear: the Obama administration was going to support policy measures that addressed the crises America faced.
For the economic mess, we got the stimulus package, and a promise for some Wall Street regulatory reform down the road. But before Congress would get its chance to sound off at Goldman Sachs, there was a crisis called healthcare to deal with.
Emanuel had been hesitant to take on the issue. He knew it would drain energy from the administration, but energy was something the president had at the time. While the stimulus vote in Congress had revealed the beginnings of deep partisan war on Capitol Hill, the Obama gas tank was full.
Healthcare became an energy hog. It transformed the Obama administration from a Toyota Prius into a Hummer going up hill full of sandbags. Through reconciliation, healthcare made it across the finish line, but the damage had been done.
The Obama tank ran out of gas just in time to tackle energy. As oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico, the world’s attention focused on stopping the leak. On Capitol Hill, attention narrowed to offshore drilling regulation. Despite Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s attempts to clean up the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the department remained a mess by the time the disaster hit. The Obama administration had a perfect storm of a crisis on its hand.
The Emanuel team crafted an Oval Office speech for the president. But as Obama pleaded with Americans to support a new philosophy on energy policy, nothing happened. The engine simply couldn’t take anymore.
So with the announcement that Rahm is out and Pete Rouse is in as chief of staff, will the Obama administration continue playing such a high-stakes game of political poker? The game has come with legislative victories in healthcare and financial reform, but those high points have come at the expense of energy and other issues. It’s hard to tell where this is all going, but the tank is empty.