Is Emanuel a liability or an asset for Obama? 

The White House had hoped Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's apology for maligning the developmentally disabled would be the last word of his latest verbal kerfuffle.

But as debate of the incident persists, it's being fueled by liberal groups and bloggers as much as conservatives including Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin.

"Rahm apologized and we're looking to move forward," said deputy press secretary Bill Burton. "This is something that happened in August."

In an incident recounted in the Wall Street Journal, Emanuel in a private meeting last summer castigated liberal groups opposing President Obama's health care reform as "F-ing retarded."

The disclosure prompted Emanuel to apologize to the Special Olympics and invite a delegation representing advocates of the disabled and others to the White House -- textbook steps for crisis management.

But the incident and its churning aftermath underscore the extent to which Emanuel, Obama's notoriously profane top staffer, has become a flash point for the Left and the Right.

A former member of the Democratic House leadership, Emanuel has angered the Left in part for his compromises on issues like health care and what some perceive as a dismissive attitude toward party liberals who supported Obama.

As a key architect of the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress, Emanuel also has few friends in conservative circles.

As chief of staff at the White House, Emanuel's alliances often appear to be shrinking as his power increases. But his close relationship to the president means his position is largely secure.

"The function of that job is to be the one who says 'no,' " said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Obama knew Rahm was a tough-talking and even vile-talking politician when he hired him."

For some liberals, the incident was just the latest disappointment from Emanuel and the administration. That the matter arose from a dispute over health care also touched a nerve.

On the liberal blog Firedoglake, writer Jane Hamsher took Emanuel apart as a "cowardly, petty, small-minded thug," unwilling to stand up to special interests -- a sentiment cheered by more than a hundred commenters.

Emanuel's remarks on the disabled gained greater traction when Palin, the mother of a child with Down syndrome, used a note on her Facebook page calling for Obama to fire him.

Limbaugh, however, despairing of the political correctness that has made the word "retard" a slur, used it repeatedly on his show to describe Emanuel and his Special Olympics summit.

The conservative backlash quickly developed its own backlash, when the liberal watchdog group Media Matters began digging up examples of Fox News' Glenn Beck using the word "retarded" and an instance of Limbaugh making fun of the Special Olympics -- something Obama found himself apologizing for last year.

A recent Fox News poll found Emanuel with a 14 percent public approval rating -- 10 percentage points below House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Twenty-four percent had an unfavorable opinion of Emanuel, while the rest said either they didn't know or had no opinion.

jmason@washingtonexaminer.com

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