I, like many others, was impressed by President-elect Obama's energy, efficiency and wisdom as he began to assemble his team in the two-and-a-half months after his election. While I clearly differed with most of them ideologically, I believed them to be competent and experienced.
Now two months into the administration, I believe the early promise of efficiency and effectiveness is not being lived up to, and I believe most of the wounds are self-inflicted. Additionally, the more things stumble along, the more I come to regard Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as proving himself not quite up to the job.
Issue 1--Staffing the Administration. Although it has been great fun to sass the Democrats on their perceived inability to pay income taxes as being the reason they are not able to fill key positions, I think the real problem is less nefarious than that. By making the elimination of lobbyist influence in Washington a higher administration goal than staffing it with qualified people, the President has effectively cut himself off from literally thousands of decent, hard-working, and expert voices to help guide policy. This policy is so misguided in its formulation and its application that even the registered lobbyists of non-profit organizations are finding it difficult to make it through the administration's vetting process. Furthermore, draconian restrictions on what potential administration figures can do AFTER their service is keeping others from serving. As popular as it is to demonize people who make a lot of money in America, many of them choose to put aside their high earnings and serve in government for periods of time. What makes this decision possible (they have mortgages and college tuitions to pay, too) is the knowledge that after their term in government, they can safely return to their lives and careers--and earning status. Obama's rigidity and attempts at purity are proving to be HUGE stumbling blocks to getting his administration off the ground. He needs all the help he can get from the most talented people available, and these people are being excluded.
Issue 2--Rahm Emanuel. Someone's got to make the trains run on time at the White House, and that person is Rahm Emanuel. Yes, it is early in the administration, and yes, mistakes will be made. But it is Emanuel's job to fix them, and it is his job to create an atmosphere of efficiency and competence. At this point, Emanuel is taking his lumps. The White House's treatment of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the lack of emphasis on filling Treasury Secretary Geithner's understaff, the non-sensical trial balloon to force wounded war veterans' private insurance to reimburse the VA for their care--even the President's appearance on Jay Leno--these mis-steps (Obama should probably not have been there in the first place) demonstrate a White House that is not yet up to speed and a Chief of Staff with great challenges ahead of him. It may be some time before the pliant lapdogs of the Washington Press Corps begin to raise questions about his performance, both out of loyalty to the man they elected and fear of reprisal. But the time will come.