Friday, January 13, 2012
Then-White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel offered his resignation to President Barack Obama in the winter of 2010 after a series of columns appeared depicting him as the lone element keeping the Obama presidency intact. According to then senior adviser David Axelrod, Emanuel understood that the stories "were an embarrassment" to the president. The president, already suffering from a setback to his health care reform effort, declined Emanuel's offer to resign, despite being convinced that his chief of staff was the main source for the columns.
"I'm not accepting it," Obama replied. "Your punishment is that you have to stay here and get this bill done. I'm not letting you off the hook."
That revelation is one of the more explosive included in "The Obamas," a new book by Jodi Kantor of The New York Times about the first few years of the Obama administration and the strains that it produced on the president's marriage -- strains that were ultimately overcome.
The dramatics that surrounded the passage of health care reform -- culminating in Emanuel's near-resignation -- reflect the type of struggles that routinely pitted Emanuel against the first lady during the first two years of the Obama administration. The two jockeyed for influence over the president even before he formally took office.
Kantor, who interviewed for the book 33 White House staffers (many on several occasions) but not the president or the first lady, reports that Michelle Obama had "doubts" about the choice of Emanuel as chief of staff. Emanuel, in turn, had been opposed to bringing Valerie Jarrett, the Obamas' longtime mentor, into the White House as a senior adviser.
Once the administration began, the frictions only escalated. Emanuel rejected an effort on the part of Michelle Obama's chief of staff, Jackie Norris, to be part of his 7:30 a.m. staff meeting. The administration did not outfit her with a speechwriter for some time. And the first lady's office grew so isolated from the rest of the presidential orbit that aides there began, as Kantor writes, "referring to the East Wing as 'Guam' -- pleasant but powerless."
"Michelle and Rahm Emanuel had almost no bond; their relationship was distant and awkward from the beginning. She had been skeptical of him when he was selected, and now he returned the favor; he was uneasy about first ladies in general, several aides close to him said, based on clashes with Hillary Clinton in the 1990s that became so severe that she had tried to fire him from her husband's administration," writes Kantor. "Now Emanuel was chief of staff, a position that almost never included an easy relationship with the first lady. They were the president's two spouses, in a sense, one public and official and one private and informal."
The tug of war between Michelle Obama and Rahm Emanuel for the president's spiritual or political soul contributed to a White House that was far more disorganized and friction-filled than the public perception holds. Kantor reports that then-White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was often deployed to push back against the first lady, informing her that she couldn't take a private vacation on a state visit, spend large amounts on White House redecoration, or buy expensive clothes.
Michelle Obama, who came to politics skeptically but saw her husband as someone capable of lofty achievements, worked hard not to be isolated. She sent emails to Jarrett when she had complaints about news coverage, which Jarrett would forward to others after removing the first lady's name from them. When she couldn't wedge certain events or people into her husband's schedule, she would send her missives to Alyssa Mastromonaco, the president's director of scheduling. The emails, Kantor writes, "were so stern that Mastromonaco showed them around to colleagues, unsure of how to respond to her boss's wife's displeasure."
It was when the jockeying between the two moved into the policy arena that matters grew most complicated. According to Kantor, in the lead-up to the 2010 midterm elections Emanuel and Michelle Obama were at odds over whether the president should give an address on the need for comprehensive immigration reform. The president wanted to do it. The chief of staff saw no point in pushing for legislation that had no chance of passage. The first lady, who had just been confronted by a second-grader in a Maryland elementary school whose mother didn't have immigration papers, felt that ignoring the issue was fundamentally at odds with her husband's own political story.
The Obamas won out. The president ended up writing portions of the speech himself but it ended poorly.
"His impassioned remarks faded almost as soon as he gave them," writes Kantor. "The media and others were puzzled -- why this, why now? ... Obama became quietly furious at his team for not giving the address more support, for not delivering the one he had wanted in the first place or talking it up more in the press. The first lady fumed, too: she took it as more proof that her husband's advisers were poorly serving him. ... The speech incident confirmed her worst fears, and by that point, several aides said, Michelle was bluntly telling her husband that he needed a new team."
Even before then, there had been major fireworks. In 2009, Emanuel did not ask the first lady or her office for permission before he told Rep. Allen Boyd, a Democrat from North Florida, that she would go to his district for a campaign-style event. The administration needed Boyd's vote on comprehensive energy legislation. Boyd needed the first lady's help holding off a challenger in his prominently black district. Boyd voted for the legislation after the first lady reluctantly agreed to visit. But even then, her staff kept her in the dark on some details.
"In October, Michelle flew down to Florida and spoke at the event, introduced by Boyd. He got his picture and his hug with her. East Wing aides never told Michelle she was being used to head off a potential black challenger for Boyd's seat -- they did not know that themselves. Her staff did know that Boyd was planning on voting against the health care bill, but they did not tell her so, they said later, because they were too afraid of how she would react."
Boyd did cast a crucial "no" vote on the health care legislation; he later voted yes on the final package.
In response to Kantor's story, Boyd told The Huffington Post: "I didn't ask the White House to have Michelle Obama to come campaign for me. I asked her to come to Florida to do an event for a statewide association that was housed in my congressional district. The event was going to be held in Miami, and it was about 600 miles from my congressional district."
Boyd added, "I never heard any words like that or spoke any words like that," about the relationship between his cap-and-trade energy vote and the first lady's visit.
Perhaps the greatest point of friction between Michelle Obama and Rahm Emanuel involved the push for health care reform. Like several staff members (specifically David Axelrod), the first lady was skeptical of, if not outright opposed to, the backroom deals being cut to advance the legislation, wary that it would tarnish an image her husband had worked years to build. But the president, "his competitive juices stoked and his most important initiative on the line, did not halt his chief of staff's horse trading," writes Kantor.
When the whole enterprise seemed to have fallen apart, following the election of Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican, the first lady was furious. Instead of letting her husband down easy, which top staff hoped she would do, she lit into him.
"She feels as if our rudder isn't set right," the president told his aides. "They had the sense that was not the actual language she had used."
Kantor writes, "To her, the Scott Brown victory provided grim evidence for what she had been saying for months, in some cases years: [her husband] had been leaning on the same tight group of insular, disorganized advisers for too long; they were not careful planners who looked out for worst-case scenarios."
Emanuel, naturally, had a different read. And according to "The Obamas," he was indignant about how the first lady handled the Brown victory. "Emanuel hated it when people criticized the administration from lofty perches," writes Kantor. "More fundamentally, the chief of staff was trying to convince the president to scale back his health care efforts, but the first lady wanted him to push forward. Emanuel wanted to win by the standard measures of presidential success: legislative victories, poll numbers. Michelle Obama had more persona criteria: Was her husband fulfilling their mission?"
In the end, Michelle Obama would win that fight. After several days of reflection, the president would push again for Congress to pass the full health care reform bill. And while he ultimately would succeed, the battles took their tolls.
"Barack Obama had made a choice in the contest of the worldviews that surrounded him, between his chief of staff's point of view and his wife's," Kantor writes. "His decision to pursue the health care overhaul later seemed to mark the beginning of the end of Emanuel's tenure in the White House."
When the House of Representatives managed to pass the bill, the president and members of his team celebrated in his residence. It was the first time many of them had been there, as the first family had tried to separate it as much as possible from the office of the president.
The first lady, however, wasn't there to cheer the achievement. She was in New York City watching television coverage "alone in her suite at the Waldorf Astoria, according to an aide, as her daughters slept."
This article has been updated to reflect Rep. Allen Boyd's response to the story about the first lady visiting his district.
CORRECTION: An earlier version wrongly stated that Michelle Obama wanted to attend the top-staff 7:30 a.m. White House meeting. Author Jodi Kantor reports that the first lady's chief of staff, Jackie Norris, wanted to attend that meeting and was rebuffed by Rahm Emanuel.
Late Thursday afternoon, as most of us scruffy media types were mopping up stories from the lawmakers early morning veto override session (link), Sen. Floyd McKissick sent a news release on behalf of the Legislative Black Caucus calling out Republicans for showing "little compassion on issues relating to African Americans in North Carolina."
The release says that legislation of photo ID for voting, repealing the Racial Justice Act, under-funding of pre-K and the Medicaid shortfall fits that pattern.
It also singles out how Republican lawmakers have dealt with two high-ranking African American bureaucrats. From the release:
Last year, Marilyn Chism, an African American, was abruptly ousted as head of the General Assembly’s Fiscal Research Division. A move apparently made for no other reason than to flex their political muscle. Recently Lynn Holmes, an African American who serves as the Assistant Secretary of Commerce for the Division of Employment Security in the Perdue Administration, has been unfairly targeted by Republican leadership, which referred to her as an “embarrassment” and “incompetent.”
I asked McKissick, a Durham Democrat, what prompted the news release and what he was hoping to achieve.
"The thing that triggered it the other day is that I got an awful, awful lot of calls and e-mails about the person from the Employment Security Commission who had been summoned before the Revenue Laws Study Commission," McKissick said. "There has been a lot of networking and communication within the African American community about her being singled out because she was African American."
McKissick was referring to a meeting that happened early on Wednesday morning before the day's veto-override shenanigans began.
Holmes is the former chairwoman of the Employment Security Commission and now does essentially the same job as an assistant secretary now that the commission is under the supervision of the Commerce Department.
On Dec. 7, Holmes did not show up at a Revenue Laws Study Committee where lawmakers had invited her to talk the state's mounting debt to the federal government for unemployment claims. Currently, North Carolina owes the feds some $2.6 billion and that debt is mounting as jobless claims continue to come in.
Holmes' absence so incensed lawmakers, particularly Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, that the committee subpoenaed her to appear at their January meeting. That's a rare move at the General Assembly, and is usually reserved for when lawmakers want to send a single they are upset.
When Holmes arrived to testify Wednesday, she was sworn under oath, something the committee didn't do for any other witness. For example, Commerce Sec. Keith Crisco, who is white, spoke about the same topics but was not sworn in.
"You can be assured it wasn't because she was black," Rucho said Friday. "We were concerned about the fact we weren't getting any information."
Holmes was the only person under subpoena, Rucho said, which is the reason she was the only person sworn.
North Carolina employers have already seen their unemployment insurance assessment go up 0.03 percent, and could see further increases if the state is ever to pay off its mounting debt, Rucho said.
Rucho said Holmes was singled out because she was in charge of a troubled agency that wasn't responding to attempts at legislative oversight.
"At what point whether someone is black, white or green do you continue to accept no action?" Rucho said.
As for the black caucus' news release, Rucho said: "McKissick is full of hot air."
When speaking to McKissick Friday morning, I asked him about the language in the news release. It was very careful and stopped short of accusing any one person or group of racism.
"Certainly the choice of words was careful," McKissick said. "Obviously terms like racism are perceived in a way that sometimes sets people off. And in fact, you want to be careful in selecting and using terms such as 'racist,' but you also want to be deliberate in identifying a pattern of behavior that is grossly insensitive and is moving in a direction we don't want to see our state taken."
The American South can't seem to shake off the Civil War. Or Jim Crow. And yet, that region of the U.S. is undergoing some dramatic changes. How the South responds to these changes will determine how easily it will enter the modern world and usher out the racial demons of its past.
Latinos are on the rise in the new South, with the nation's fastest growing Hispanic populations in the states of the former Confederacy. Georgia and North Carolina are now among the ten largest Latino communities in the nation.
Further, African Americans are coming back home to the region, reflecting the nation's largest demographic shift. The South now has its highest share of black folks in half a century. As northern states and California have witnessed a loss in their black populations, Atlanta has gained half a million black people in a decade. The largest black city after New York is no longer Chicago, it is Atlanta.
The migration of Latinos and the reverse migration of blacks mean that people of color are poised to become a majority in some areas of the South, as is the case in Texas. Add to that the influx of white professionals and high-tech workers in states such as North Carolina -- a red state that Obama turned blue in 2008 -- and you have the makings of noticeable change.
Then again, you have Alabama. After the state enacted the harshest anti-immigration law in the land, Latinos are leaving Alabama. Now, farmers are hoping to replace migrant workers with prisoners to work the fields because, after all, we know how forced agricultural labor worked out the first time around.
Alabama, as an aside, has a majority black prison population. African-Americans are 27 percent of the population and 63 percent of the prisoners. The state is 23rd in the nation in population, but was second in the number of executions in 2011. And over the past decade, nearly two dozen death penalty cases were overturned because prosecutors illegally struck black jurors.
Last year, like Alabama, South Carolina also passed its own bad anti-immigration law -- modeled after Arizona's SB 1070 -- key parts of which were thrown out by a federal judge in Charleston. And the U.S. Department of Justice blocked the state's new voter ID law, which would require voters to present a photo idea at the polls, and discriminate against racial minorities in the process. Under the Voting Rights Act, states such as South Carolina and Texas, because of their history of racial discrimination, require federal approval of any changes to their election laws.
The old South meets the new, as South Carolina's Governor Nikki Haley signed both of these cruel, atrocious pieces of legislation into law, and vows to fight in court to have them upheld. Governor Haley is the children of Sikh immigrants from Punjab, India. The Sikh-American community has endured its share of discrimination in the post-911 era, branded as terrorists and persecuted for the traditional turban and beard worn by Sikh men.
And so, a woman of South Asian ancestry, a person of color and darling of the Tea Party, has chosen to channel the angry white segregationist governors that came before her. Some names that come to mind are George Wallace of Alabama, who stood in the schoolhouse door to block black students from enrolling at the University of Alabama; Theodore G. Bilbo of Mississippi, who kept blacks from voting, and Ross Barnett, who denied James Meredith, an African-American, admission to the University of Mississippi.
Haley's policies, not unlike those of her predecessors, are the unjust laws that Martin Luther King discussed in Letter from Birmingham Jail. As King said, "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority. ... An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal."
Even today, such laws are designed to keep communities of color isolated, scared and disempowered, down and out of the process. That the dominant party in the South has changed its affiliation from Democratic to Republican since the Civil Rights era really is beside the point. The old mentality remains. We're talking old South vs. new South, a steadfast resistance to civil rights, and clinging to a segregationist mindset, even well into the twenty-first century.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, a black man named Troy Davis was executed last year under the rules of the old South -- a justice system of mob rule, in which racial vengeance and scapegoating take precedence over guilt or innocence. In the end, what mattered was not the evidence pointing to Davis's innocence, or the seven out of nine witnesses who recanted or changed their testimony, but rather that the victim was a white police officer and Davis was a black man.
Although I was born and raised in New York and now live in Philadelphia, I always regarded the South as a second home, if not something of an ancestral homeland. My mother was born in Charleston, South Carolina, and my late father was from Augusta, Georgia. I have lots of family there, not to mention fond childhood memories of visiting cousins. Many good people in the South, to be sure, but there's a great deal of ugly in the South.
The problem arises when some people can't pick a century to live in and stick with it.
David A. Love is the Executive Director of Witness to Innocence, a national nonprofit organization that empowers exonerated death row prisoners and their family members to become effective leaders in the movement to abolish the death penalty.