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Real Genius

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

Friday, March 12, 2010

A year ago, David Axelrod, the president's senior adviser, was a genius. A year ago, Rahm Emanuel, the president's chief of staff, was a wizard.

Axelrod was at President Obama's side for the long campaign, managing the strategy that resulted in Obama's victories over Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in the primaries, and John McCain in the general election. Anyone who thinks doing that is easy ought to try it: I have, and it isn't.

Emanuel, a veteran White House aide and congressman, managed to push through a stimulus bill in the president's first weeks in office and was credited with the skills and know-how to guide a first-term senator through the Washington snake pit.

Now, both of these men are the focus of scathing articles in major publications, the subject of backbiting and sniping, second-guessed for their strategy and toughness. What happened? How did two geniuses suddenly become such out-and-out fools?

This is the short answer: They didn't. They are still the guys they were last year. If they weren't in these jobs, people would be saying they should be and blaming the guys (or gals) who were. Welcome to the cruel world of politics.

Working in the highest levels of politics is a little bit like having an affair with a married person. It's bound to end badly, not because (as is the case with the affair) it's a bad move in the first place, but because democracy is so darn difficult.

No matter what you do, you're bound to fail sooner or later. And when you do, it's merciless.

In Hollywood, failure is also inevitable. Even Steven Spielberg makes a dog now and then, and he's among the best in the game. But failure in Tinseltown is not nearly as cruel; the joke is that you fail and get promoted. You show me an Academy Award winner, and I'll show you someone who's made almost as many dogs as hits. This year's obvious example is Sandra Bullock, who won an Oscar for best actress and a Razzie for worst. It did not diminish her smile on election night, nor will it cut into her paycheck for her next film.

Not so in Washington. The town itself -- and by that I mean not just the place and the people who work there, but the thousands more who spend their days opining or reporting on what they did wrong -- has only grown more vicious over the years. In Washington, the national pastime is not baseball but gotcha. And the more you try to do, the more likely you are to be gotten.

Axelrod is being criticized for allowing the president to try to do too much. But if he hadn't, if Obama had decided earlier this year to put off his health care initiative until better economic times, I can promise you he would be criticized for allowing the president to do too little, for wasting the mandate and neglecting the commitments made during the campaign.

Emanuel is being criticized for being too tough, playing the inside game with too much vigor and too sharp elbows. But I'm old enough to remember when Jimmy Carter came to town with the Georgians, who were roundly criticized for not knowing or playing the Washington game with the toughness required. President Clinton was criticized for trying to shove a health care bill that Congress had no role in formulating down their throats. Emanuel is being criticized for doing just the opposite. Heads you lose, tails you lose.

Indeed, I can't tell you how many Democrats have come up to me in recent weeks to tell me I was "right" -- that Hillary Clinton would have been the better president. Now, no one is a bigger fan of Hillary than I am, but I can promise you that if she were president, there would be plenty of Democrats longing for Barack.

Everyone makes mistakes, including presidents and their top advisers. But Axelrod and Emanuel were among the best in the business last year, and they still are. Their recent stumbles, if that's the right word, are not a sign that they have lost their touch, but only of just how hard their jobs are.

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