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Rahm Emanuel’s Competence Test

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Most of the controversy surrounding Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has focused on his management of policy issues. As all political advisors do, he has prioritized initiatives based on his assessment of the risks and benefits to his president of championing them. Less often discussed, however, is a more objective test of Emanuel’s competence: has he succeeded in getting the president’s nominees through their confirmation process? Few tasks are more important than this one, as was well understood by Andrew Card and Karl Rove, who put considerable energy into providing the essential White House “push through.”

By this test, Emanuel has been an abject failure. Consider the appointment of federal judges. Few things count more towards a president’s “legacy” than this, since judges have lifetime tenure. But, as the Associated Press shows in a study published this weekend, under the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, the G.O.P.’s already strong grip on the federal judiciary has actually tightened:

A determined Republican stall campaign in the Senate has sidetracked so many of the men and women nominated by President Barack Obama for judgeships that he has put fewer people on the bench than any president since Richard Nixon at a similar point in his first term 40 years ago. The delaying tactics have proved so successful, despite the Democrats’ substantial Senate majority, that fewer than half of Obama’s nominees have been confirmed and 102 out of 854 judgeships are vacant. Forty-seven of those vacancies have been labeled emergencies by the judiciary because of heavy caseloads.

With the Obama appointment process essentially stagnated, and the judges leaving the bench largely those who were appointed by Carter and Clinton, the G.O.P.-appointed percentage of the bench has actually risen.

This performance is inexplicable in light of the enormous Democratic majority in the Senate, which at times has hit the 60 votes needed to preclude procedural measures against nominees. It reflects a dramatic failure of management by senate Democratic leaders like Patrick Leahy and Harry Reid, but it also points to a White House that is simply oblivious to the nominations process. On this measure, Rahm Emanuel is the worst performing White House chief of staff in recent memory.

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