A senior presidential aide is supposed to solve problems, not create or compound them for his boss. So the White House was knocked off-stride when Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was forced to issue a public apology for using a derogatory word for people with learning disabilities.
But even before the gaffe, Emanuel was becoming a magnet for criticism of President Obama’s difficulties in turning his ambitious agenda into achievements.
In an unguarded moment, Emanuel had referred to a group of liberal Democrats as “retarded.” When reports of the remark began circulating, the former Chicago congressman -- already famous for his foxhole profanity -- moved to express his regret and promised to help leaders of the disabled community sensitize the public on the issue.
Although that may have tamped down the immediate problem, the larger questions remained.
When he took on the White House assignment, Emanuel was widely seen as a consummate political strategist who was wired into Congress and other Washington power centers -- skills considered especially important to a relatively inexperienced new president pushing an ambitious agenda.
But for all of the relationships Emanuel built in helping Democrats recapture the House in 2006, he has not succeeded in greasing the way for Obama’s programs. The healthcare overhaul is in limbo. And the president’s political fortunes seem to have dwindled, with his approval rating falling and Democrats suffering embarrassing setbacks in a trio of elections over the last year.
Emanuel’s remark, reported by the Wall Street Journal, indirectly reflected those problems. He was irritated at liberals who were criticizing more-conservative Democrats.
After the Journal story appeared, former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who has a child with Down’s syndrome, called for Emanuel’s resignation.
White House aides said Thursday that Emanuel’s position was secure and that he had no plans to leave.
David Axelrod, the president’s senior advisor, said in an interview: “He’s learned something from that -- that words can be hurtful. And you have to be thoughtful about how you use them.”
Axelrod’s daughter has a developmental disability. Lauren Axelrod, 27, suffered irreversible brain damage after nearly two decades of epileptic seizures.
Emanuel moved quickly to defuse the episode. He apologized and met privately this week with half a dozen advocates for people with disabilities, including Timothy Shriver, chairman and chief executive of the Special Olympics.
The group asked Emanuel to help eliminate the word “retarded” from everyday conversation by signing a pledge at the website www.r-word.org. As of Thursday morning, Emanuel hadn’t signed the pledge. A spokeswoman said that he planned to sign it later in the day and then discuss it with his children as part of a “teachable moment.”
Emanuel’s gaffe has refocused attention on his role. He is often rumored to be on the verge of leaving -- to revive a promising political career interrupted when he joined Obama’s White House. Even with a big portfolio, he has made time to attend three fundraising events for lawmakers.
With Obama’s poll numbers falling, Emanuel has shouldered a measure of blame. Christopher Edley Jr., dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, who was active in Obama’s 2008 campaign, told the Times of London: “It’s almost as if Rahm Emanuel cares more about the reelection prospects of his friends on [Capitol] Hill than he does about scoring policy victories that reflect Obama’s values.”
The travails of Obama’s healthcare plan have also made Emanuel a target. Some Democratic aides on Capitol Hill describe Emanuel as a creature of the House who doesn’t grasp the slower pace and delicate sensitivities in the Senate, where Democrats can’t ram home policy ideas on the strength of their majority status alone.
One congressional Democratic official who was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject said that Emanuel’s House pedigree created a “blind side” for him. “When he weighed in, it was with a House mentality,” the official said. “It was, ‘cut a deal,’ or ‘push something through.’ ”
After a full year in office, Obama has no healthcare win to speak of.
A White House official who was also not authorized to speak publicly on the topic responded Thursday, making no apologies for Emanuel’s tough style. “If the allegation is Rahm is trying to get healthcare done, that’s true and remains true. He’s trying to get it done,” the official said.
Noam N. Levey in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.