What does the new White House chief of staff tell us about the politics of the new Obama administration?
Rahm Emanuel is known for his combative style, his expletive-laced language and his deep desire for partisan victory. As an Illinois congressman and part of the House Democratic leadership, those qualities have proved helpful in extending the Democratic majority and pushing the party's agenda.
But picking the hard-charging Emanuel—Obama's first major post-election decision—seems at odds with the consensus-minded manner of an incoming president who promises to unite red and blue America.
The Republican National Committee greeted news of Emanuel's selection with an e-mail headlined OBAMA'S BROKEN PROMISE. The statement began: "After promising change, Obama selects hyper-partisan wedded to special interests as his White House chief of staff."
But Team Obama defends the choice. "Rahm knows that good policy is good politics," says one senior Obama adviser. "And Barack is confident in his own judgment, that he can tell the different between good and bad advice."
Obama's aides, as well as congressional Democrats, dismiss the Republican attacks, pointing to Emanuel's personal friendships with key Republicans. Among those GOP friends: Josh Bolten, the current White House chief of staff; Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood; and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of John McCain's best friends.
"This is a wise choice by President-elect Obama," Graham said in a statement released Thursday afternoon. "Rahm knows Capitol Hill and has great political skills. He can be a tough partisan but also understands the need to work together. He is well-suited for the position of White House Chief of Staff.
"I worked closely with him during the presidential debate negotiations which were completed in record time," Graham continued (Emanuel remained studiously neutral during the Democratic primaries and did not officially endorse Obama until after the nomination was sewn up). "When we hit a rough spot, he always looked for a path forward. I consider Rahm to be a friend and colleague. He's tough but fair. Honest, direct, and candid. These qualities will serve President-elect Obama well."
Emanuel himself tackled the question Thursday afternoon. "I want to say a special word about my Republican colleagues, who serve with dignity, decency and a deep sense of patriotism," he said, in a statement. "We often disagree, but I respect their motives. Now is a time for unity, and Mr. President-elect, I will do everything in my power to help you stitch together the frayed fabric of our politics, and help summon Americans of both parties to unite in common purpose."
Even Obama partisans must concede that Emanuel represents a stark contrast with the man who ran Obama's campaign. David Plouffe drove the campaign machine hard, to be sure. But he is a soft-spoken operative who kept a low public profile and prided himself on building a no-drama culture. No one could accuse Emanuel of those traits.
Obama's senior advisers dismiss the notion that Emanuel's toughness is a barrier to his building a cohesive team. "Being tough doesn't mean you're a bad leader," said one of Obama's inner circle. "The people who worked for Rahm loved him."
Obama's aides cite several factors in Emanuel's rise to the top of the new White House power structure. They say he has a rare combination of experience at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue—first as a key aide to President Bill Clinton, and more recently as a rising star in House Democratic ranks; Emanuel helped recruit and raise money for countless Democratic congressional candidates across the country. That resume, Obama's aides say, could help pave the path to legislative success for the new administration.
Emanuel was a leading player in the recent negotiations over the financial-rescue package. And his experience working for the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort could also help as the incoming team tackles the huge challenge of mending a battered economy and a wounded Wall Street.
There is also a powerful personal connection at work. Obama's advisers say the two men have a very close relationship, as do their young families. It was Emanuel who helped convince Obama not to move his family to D.C. when he was elected senator in 2004.
The personal chemistry is key; chiefs of staff are often the first people to say good morning to the president, and the last people to say good night. The current chief of staff, Josh Bolten, has described much of his time as being Velcro-ed to his boss. As president, you want to be Velcro-ed to someone whose company you enjoy and whose judgment you trust.
All the same, this wasn't an easy choice for Emanuel, according to friends. Becoming chief of staff means moving his own family from Chicago to D.C., while having less free time to spend with them. And it means giving up his ambition to move up the congressional Democratic leadership ladder—and, possibly, become House Speaker one day. "He was willing to forgo his leadership track for this, and he's very family-oriented," said one of his close friends. "This is a sacrifice."
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Emanuel said he was happy that his parents were alive to see the day when their son would be chief of staff to a historic president at a historic time. According to CNN, the man sometimes caricatured as "Rahmbo" then welled up with tears.