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Changing of the White House guard: soap or serious?

Mark Mardell | 15:54 UK time, Wednesday, 29 September 2010

So Rahm Emanuel is off. Will he be replaced by Peter Rouse or Tom Donilon? The economy may be spluttering and Afghanistan on the brink but the Washington media are obsessed by the imminent departure of the White House chief of staff, who is likely to try to become Mayor of Chicago.

It is good soap opera for those of us who live and breathe the politics of this town but does it merit the attention it gets? Not just from insider tip sheets The Hill and Politico but the British media too.

It's a contrast with the coverage of the nuts and bolts of politics in the rest of the world. The leader of Europe's biggest economy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, would have to fire her entire cabinet to attract the sort of attention that Mr Emanuel's planned and fairly routine departure will get.

So does it matter? Only if it affects how Mr Obama does his job or what he does. It won't affect the latter at any rate. This is nothing to do with policy. But perhaps the personalities matter.

It's not only the chief of staff who is going. Long-term senior advisor David Axelrod is off as well, heading back to Chicago to plan the president's 2012 re-election campaign. Three senior economic advisors have already gone, including the forceful Larry Summers. National Security Advisor Gen Jim Jones may depart and so will, at some point, Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

The last three jobs are important in themselves. As for the others, they're important if the president comes to feel he has fewer friends around. It is not exactly bunker White House yet, but if Mr Obama replaces them with more Chicago insiders it may feel increasingly like that.

One perceptive observer remarks that the Obama team does its job with a grudging sense of duty, rather than a fizz of excitement. He quotes Churchill that meeting FDR was "like uncorking a bottle of champagne", and Churchill knew his champagne.

These days Mr Obama may seem more like the cod liver oil that is good for you, but certainly not taken for fun. Many of you have observed that Mr Obama's problem is his policies, not his style. To some, that is obviously true. But it is the others, those who once were believers that matter. From the president's point of a view, a new team which communicates a sense of verve would be no bad thing.

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