David Rothkopf

Washington: The winners and losers of 2009

It’s the end of 2009, and not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade. A fact that has editors everywhere jonesing for lists … who am I to disappoint? (Here is the first in a series of lists. Be on the lookout for big Hanukkah treat: The Winners and Losers ...

It’s the end of 2009, and not just the end of the year, but the end of the decade. A fact that has editors everywhere jonesing for lists … who am I to disappoint? (Here is the first in a series of lists. Be on the lookout for big Hanukkah treat: The Winners and Losers of the Decade! Put that in your dreidle and spin it.)

Let’s start with The Loveable Losers shall we? After all, while Vince Lombardi said that in football "winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing."In politics, most of the players are losers to begin with and watching them squirm is what makes Wolf Blitzer so damn irresistible. And that’s not to speak of Gloria Borger or Chris Wallace. (Come to think of it, if those guys can make it in television, I have an idea: The Potato Channel. Wouldn’t it be more fun to watch an entire field of tubers ripen and rot? That’s reality television the average American viewer can relate to. Heck, the average American viewer is likely to think it’s about them.)

  • John Boehner and Mitch McConnell: One looks like an extra in "Mad Men," the other like one from "Six Feet Under" … but both are clearly dancing to music only they can hear. The Lawrence Welk Show maybe? So far this year they have exactly zero major victories to show for themselves and even their party realizes (well, the ones that are honest with themselves) that we won’t be sure that the GOP is back until after these two have exited stage right..
  • Jim Jones: One minute he’s up … a great choice for National Security Advisor … the next minute he’s down … ineffective … then he’s back up. Obama respects him, but now, at the end of the year, it is clear the policy process is drawn out, too messy, and the buzz is that he is getting regularly backdoored by former campaign staffers and others who would have been sitting up straight and saluting in his previous job.
  • The Short-Timers: Jones is one about whom the whispers of an early departure ebbed but have now returned (watch for the fight over that slot when it eventually does happen… Susan Rice vs. whoever Hillary’s candidate is with the likely compromise winner being Tom Donilon). How about Rahm? There’s lots of buzz that he’ll leave early to pursue new political horizons. People say the same about Tim Geithner but I doubt it … he’s proved canny and grows stronger daily. Holbrooke? Mitchell? I’m willing to be that at least one big name czar goes early — and I mean a bigger name than the already long-gone Steve Rattner (who is rumored to be working on a tell-all book). Ron Kirk? Gary Locke? For them leaving would be redundant.
  • The MSNBC Anti-Sarah Palin Brigade: You know who you are. You guys have watched Twilight too many times. You wanted to kill her with a stake through her heart or a bullet made of your silver tongued ridicule … you didn’t realize that would just make her stronger. It’s a year later folks, and don’t kid yourself, this semi-literate snow bunny is the second strongest brand in American politics.
  • Harry Reid: Here he is quietly putting together a health care bill against all odds and in the corridors they’re talking about who’ll replace him as majority leader when he loses his seat next November. While Dick Durbin is the likely suspect, smarter folks than I expect N.Y. Senator Charles Schumer to unleash his death-eaters (a Harry Potter reference for those of you over 30) in a stealth campaign to deny Durbin the job and win it for himself.

And the Big Winners?

  • Barack Obama: Quibble all you want about that process stuff, here are the facts: A year ago we were at the economic brink doubting a turnaround would happen for years, he had been elected to bring an end to an unpopular war and switch our focus to Afghanistan, he pledged to do something about health care despite the fact that nothing had been done of substance in about half a century and then he said he’d restore America’s reputation around the world and reverse our stance on global warming while he was at it. Twelve months later despite having had to climb a steep learning curve and deal with the one horse shay up on the Hill, he’s done it all. Perfect? No. Flawed? Plenty. But without question the most impressive first year in office for a U.S. president since Franklin Roosevelt.
  • The Cardinals: No, not the ones in St. Louis …or even the ones in the Vatican (especially not them) … I mean the campaign inner circle that now are the most powerful people in Washington who are not actually named Obama. Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Valerie Jarrett lead the parade but also key, folks like Pete Rouse, Denis McDonough and even, on the foreign policy side, Donilon, who literally defies Washington gravity by being the only guy I never hear anything negative about.
  • Larry Summers: Not getting the Fed job is probably the best thing that could have happened to him. He’s made the NEC and the tight team around him and Geithner the invaluable A-team on the issues that will mean most to Obama’s political future. Crisis? Check. Now on to jobs. Tougher…but no one is smarter or more pragmatic … which happen to be the two traits most often used to describe the President too.
  • John Podesta and George Soros: The Center for American Progress is the most influential think tank in Washington, Brookings is a distant second. (And I say that as a visiting scholar at Carnegie…which is home to the smartest, most creative and most drop-dead good looking wonks in town.) Podesta has made it the brain of the Democratic Party. And despite the fact that the right wing nuts have said Soros has bought huge influence in Demworld by writing the check for the place, it’s actually true.
  • Chuck Todd and Savanah Guthrie: These two are the big journalistic winners for the first year of the Obama administration. The NBC tandem is comprise of rising stars who will dominate American journalism. Todd is a rock solid reporter and analyst and Guthrie is not just sharp as a switch blade she is the most appealing new television journalist who doesn’t work on the Daily Show. Close runner up: everyone at Politico who has carved out a central place for themselves in the intellectual life of Washington, (most notably Mike Allen whose morning Playbook has climbed the must read list to the point that I go to it before I go to the Times, the Post, or Drudge). Third place: the Wall Street Journal. Admit it … go on … Rupert Murdoch has vastly, vastly improved this paper. When the dust settles and America only has three or four national newspapers they’ll lead the pack. 
  • Representative Joe Sestak: He’s my pick for Sleeper of the Year. Watch the former Admiral closely; he’s the real deal … brilliant, hard-working congressman who is headed for bigger things if the people of Pennsylvania and the leaders of the Democratic Party know what’s in the national interest.
  • Hillary Clinton: She has done an absolutely superb job in a thankless task. I’m on the record on this with the piece I wrote a couple months ago in the Post but I have to say, the more I know what she is up against bureaucratically in the administration (yes, Virginia, the Obama administration is rife with the same kind of in-fighting as all others … and the Camp Clinton vs. Camp Barack tensions are there even if the secretary and the president have forged a terrific partnership.)
  • Rising Stars: The next Secretary of Defense is likely to be Sen. Jack Reed or Michele Flournoy, the Under Secretary for Policy. The fact that people say these things about them is not a bad thing. Kurt Campbell has done a great job as assistant secretary of state for East Asia…helping to make his region the central long-term strategic focus of the administration. Anne-Marie Slaughter has restored the energy and intellectual clout to the State Department Policy planning department. Susan Rice has done a great job at the United Nations (watch one of her mentors Tony Lake end up as the next head of UNICEF). Gayle Smith may bump heads with state on development issues, but her portfolio at the NSC (global affairs which includes development) is central to every outcome we want in the Mideast and she is a force to be reckoned with.
  • Steven Chu and the Department of Energy: From worst to not quite first but at least this onetime backwater has become absolutely central, dispensing big bucks, delivering deals around the globe for the president and playing a vital role in reshaping U.S. energy policy at a time when that is vital on the national security, environmental security and economic security fronts all at the same time.
 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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