Buck stops with Obama

A spate of articles about both Axelrod and Emanuel has cropped up to tell us what we already knew. Axelrod appears the brooding Dartmouth professor who should be strumming a guitar by a fire — he keeps the biggest of pictures of the entire White House team, and is committed to the belief that Obama will be a transformational president. Emanuel, whom Axelrod supported for the job, is the manic, foul-mouthed backroom brawler who focuses on the small picture, set on transforming the news cycle and thus the momentum in Congress, day by day and detail by dirty detail. These accounts brim with colorful nuggets about the separate relationships each man shares with the president, how their purposefully antithetical roles allow for healthy disagreements, how the stress of the sleepless frenzy has caused Axelrod to gain weight and Emanuel to lose weight, how Axelrod feels distance bordering on disdain for Washington while Emanuel is naturally attuned to the Capitol’s rhythms.

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The verbal dissection must be painful for both men, knowing how it undermines their goal of helping Obama. But the premise that either one could derail his boss is ludicrous. Axelrod is paid to repel the fray and the chattering class, while Emanuel is paid to embrace and engage both. Neither of them, with their disparate styles, or even objectives, can be faulted for the mess Obama finds himself in. Ultimately all decisions are his, and Obama, though he sought his job with relatively limited political experience, is capable of making them. Yes, the president inherited an economic calamity, two wars and deep debt. And no, the Republicans won’t play ball, even on the small things. But the tough choices, and the consequences of those choices — from auto-industry bailouts, side deals with the drug industry, letting the Congress write the stimulus program, letting the Department of Justice make the call on a civilian trial for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York City, and promising to close Guantánamo Bay prison within one year — fall on the shoulders of the president.

Obama is informed by his staff of political and policy developments, of the movements of public opinion, and of their recommendations, but then it is all up to him.

While Democrats can blame Obama’s staff for never seeing the loss of former Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (D-Mass.) seat coming, no aide or adviser made the president come to the cameras during his Hawaiian vacation to deliver a tepid response to the would-be bombing on Christmas Day, calling Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s plot to kill hundreds the act of an isolated extremist.

Obama must be held accountable for failing to appreciate the nation’s anger over Wall Street rescues, the brevity of its patience for deficits after the Bush years and its growing anxiety about the continued threat of terrorism. Not yet 18 months away from the campaign trail, he is losing public sentiment and losing touch.

To put a stop to the slide, and to the parlor game about his lieutenants, Obama must remember that the buck stops with him.

Stoddard is an associate editor of The Hill.