Rahm Emanuel: A Tough Taskmaster for Obama

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Alex Brandon / AP

Rahm Emanuel talks with President-elect Barack Obama

Throughout the presidential campaign, Republicans took delight in portraying Barack Obama as all talk and no action. But his naming of Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel as his White House chief of staff shows that the Democratic President-elect has no intention of letting that charge stick.

Obama may speak beautifully and inspirationally about hope and change, about bipartisan cooperation and a better America. But he clearly understands that you can't just sit around talking about all the good things you want to do when you get to the White House and then expect them to happen all by themselves. Which means you can't hire a staff that's going to gather at work every day, hold hands and sing "Kumbaya."

Instead, you bring in a guy like Emanuel, the most hardheaded, no-nonsense, foul-mouthed, smart-as-hell, get-it-done-or-get-out-of-my-way Washington insider of his generation. And you put him in charge of a White House staff whose task it is — and this is putting it conservatively — to conceive, propose, promote and somehow push through Congress the most ambitious agenda any President has carried forth at least since Ronald Reagan rode into town with a lopsided grin in January 1981. "Rahm does not sing 'Kumbaya,' " says an old friend and colleague with a laugh. "He barks orders." His hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, calls Emanuel a "brutally effective taskmaster."

Not everyone in Congress, or in Washington, particularly likes Emanuel, 49, the former senior Clinton White House official who just won his fourth term in Congress representing a portion of Chicago and who serves as the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House. Even some members of his own party (including members of the black and Latino caucuses) bear no affection for him, especially those who feel he has run roughshod over their prerogatives in pursuit of some greater goal — like wresting control of the House from the Republicans in 2006, a project Emanuel spearheaded. Others simply fear him. But few people who know and have dealt with Emanuel are not greatly impressed by his energy, intellect and sheer will. "It shows Obama is serious about getting things done and that he knows he doesn't have a lot of time to do it," says an Obama campaign insider. "And it shows that he realizes that he needs someone to corral the Democrats in Congress. If they're running off in all directions, Obama's agenda will go nowhere."

Some on both the left and right have criticized Obama's choice of a profane Washington insider for chief of staff as evidence that his promise to raise the level of civility in U.S. politics was all talk. But those critics misunderstand the nature of the job and the role Emanuel will be playing. Obama will be the public face and voice of his Administration. He'll set the tone. Emanuel will oversee the hard work of running the White House and pushing the agenda in the halls of Congress. "The job now is to translate the dreams into reality," says Paul Begala, a Clinton White House veteran who knows Emanuel well. "Barack will be the inspiration; Rahm will be the perspiration." (See pictures of Barack Obama's campaign behind the scenes.)

That Obama made Emanuel his first White House pick shows how dramatically different he wants his transition to be from the disastrous one of the last incoming Democratic President. In 1992, Bill Clinton took his time choosing his staff, and he focused much of that time on the Cabinet, believing the White House staff to be secondary. His eventual selection of personal friends from Arkansas, like his first chief of staff, Mack McLarty, proved that Washington outsiders aren't so good at running Washington.

Emanuel started out with Clinton in the 1992 campaign as a fundraiser. He was relentless and successful. By January 1993, he'd moved up the ladder in Clinton's world to the point at which he was named White House political director. In that job, he offended enough people — in particular Hillary Clinton — that he was demoted and almost fired. But he stuck around, worked hard and ended up being the primary force behind some of the biggest legislative successes of Clinton's presidency: the North American Free Trade Agreement, the so-called crime bill and welfare reform.

It's important to note that none of those bills could be defined as part of a liberal agenda. In fact, by pushing for them, Clinton (and Emanuel) angered large numbers of liberal Democrats. And when he ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2006 cycle, he infuriated some liberals by recruiting conservative and moderate candidates — people who supported gun rights or opposed abortion — to run in red districts. (That anger faded after Emanuel's recruits helped sweep the Democrats into power in the House two years ago.)

All of which explains why the caricature of Emanuel in Congress as a hyperpartisan Democrat is both true and beside the point. He is a partisan, in the sense that he is a tireless advocate — but he is that way whether he's advocating for the Democratic Party in congressional races or for legislation on behalf of his President that many Democrats oppose. (Read "Congressional Races to Watch '08.")

Several days passed after word that Obama wanted Emanuel as his chief of staff before Emanuel actually accepted the job. Some observers expressed frustration that he seemed to be dragging out the first high-profile hire of an incoming Administration whose campaign had been respected for its notable lack of drama; others speculated that Emanuel was torn, because he had spoken openly of wanting to follow Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. But Emanuel's path to the Speakership wasn't guaranteed. More important, his wife and three children live in Chicago. Friends say Emanuel struggled with the idea that he'd have to move his family to Washington and that his family was reluctant to do it. In the end, Emanuel said yes. "A new President, a person you know well and respect immensely, asks you to be White House chief of staff for the most historic presidency of your lifetime?" says an Emanuel friend who worked with him in the Clinton White House. "And you say no? In the end, I don't think so."

"Rahm's impatient. He's been in Congress five and a half years. How long can he wait?" jokes another friend. "He's aggressive and creates his own weather. He's always pushing the envelope: 'What's the next thing?' " (See the next President's to-do list.)

Does hiring Emanuel mean Obama will be bringing in mostly old Clinton hands to populate offices in the West Wing and Cabinet agencies? Not necessarily. The Democratic bench is deep, but it is deep in large part because so many Democrats earned Executive Branch experience during the eight years of the Clinton presidency. It would be absurd to imagine Obama bypassing all of that experience in the name of bringing in only fresh blood. Undoubtedly, Obama will also bring in loyal campaign staffers and advisers who are not Clinton-era veterans. But installing someone like Emanuel to anchor the White House staff makes eminent sense. As Begala says, "It helps to have someone around who knows where the Situation Room is."

— With reporting by Karen Tumulty

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