There are things that people know, or think that they know, about Rahm Emanuel: He is voluble, tireless, notoriously profane. And yet, when I met him last month, all the stories hadn’t prepared me for his intensity in person. A conversation with Emanuel is a physical experience. When he has strong feelings about a subject—which is often—he frequently sits on the very edge of his chair, emphasizing his point through proximity. At one point, he waved his finger inches from my face, Lyndon Johnson–style.
Emanuel’s forceful personality is especially at odds with the surprisingly Zen atmosphere of the mayoral offices on the fifth floor of Chicago’s City Hall. The suite is sparsely populated and uncluttered; Emanuel’s personal office is spacious and airy. It is an environment that seems to signal the fresh start Emanuel hoped to initiate—both for Chicago, after the 22-year reign of Richard Daley, and for himself, after serving in Bill Clinton’s chaotic administration and as Barack Obama’s chief of staff during the tumultuous passage of health care reform.
But his mayoral term has been controversial: While he has been praised for his urban-development projects, he has angered teachers’ unions in Chicago and seen a steady drop in support among black voters. The city’s budget deficit is a major problem.
After a brief conversation about a trip his father was taking to Israel, Emanuel, who served as a civilian volunteer there during the first Gulf war, sat down abruptly, as if to say that the interview should begin. We discussed the differences between Bill and Hillary Clinton, the American debate over the Middle East, and the fissures in the Democratic Party that could determine its fate in 2016.
Isaac Chotiner: Your predecessor held this job—
Rahm Emanuel: My predecessor?
IC: Yes, Richard Daley, who was in office for twenty-two years. What was it like taking over a city when one man had so much control for so long?
RE: I am here to build a future. You know he is a friend.
IC: I am not demanding you say anything bad about him.
RE: I am not going to. I would never do that. He was a great mayor. There are things he did that I would do differently. He acknowledged the public was ready for a change. Millennium Park used to be railroad tracks. He built it. It is one of the greatest public spaces built in the last fifty years in the developed world. That said, it was time for a change. His presence is such a part of the city. My goal is to ensure we have a future and to make the changes that I think people voted for.
IC: Do you think someone should be able to be mayor for that long?
RE: I don’t know, man. My position on term limits is called elections.
IC: Bill Clinton would still be president.
RE: Well, yeah. At one point ... [Trails off.] That is true.
IC: Let me ask you about your own image—sending people dead fish and so forth.1 To what degree have you tried to create this image yourself?
RE: Maybe I should ask the question to you. Look, I did send the fish. I and four other people. In 1986. [Pauses for several seconds.] We are coming up to almost thirty years. It is time for people to freshen up their anecdotes. You aren’t the same person you were when you graduated college. I didn’t say I didn’t do it. But where I was at twenty or thirty versus fifty-four, where I am a father of three—I’m just a different person.
IC: But you still have this reputation. You must have seen what Robert Gates called you in his book: “a whirling dervish with attention deficit disorder.”
RE: Yeah, so? What are you wondering?
RE: Finish your question.
IC: Do you pursue this style and image because it has advantages in governing?
RE: The assumption is that I only have one gear.
IC: OK, I am asking about that gear.
RE: Well, first of all, I am interested in telling you I have more than one gear. Here is what I think about you guys.
IC: The media?
RE: Look, politicians are usually gray. I am not. So little things stand out because they are magnified against that backdrop. I will say this. I am driven to fulfill the responsibility I have. I owe the people who voted to fulfill the pledges I made.
IC: The portrait of you in your brother Zeke’s new book was interesting.2 He made it seem as if you care about getting things done no matter the details. In one scene, doctors bring up malpractice reform and you sort of say, Screw this. But more recently, when you talk about being mayor, you talk about the need for a bigger vision.
RE: You asked me about style. Now you are asking me a different question.
RE: Don’t mix the answers with the questions.
IC: I promise not to.
RE: I was chief of staff. I was charged with trying to produce a health care bill that hadn’t been done in a hundred years. And I will say, it happened. [Laughs.] I love my brother. As you know, we have a lot of disagreements.
IC: You love both brothers, for the record, not just one?
RE: Yeah, but the one you are referring to. You people at The New Republic. I am well aware of my younger brother.
IC: When the Obamacare website wasn’t working properly, did you want to be in Washington trying to fix it?
RE: You gotta be kidding. You get a freebie question for the ridiculousness of that question.
IC: I was asking about your competitive instinct. You say you like to fix things.
RE: [Gets up and starts walking around the office.] That goes down as one of the more intriguing questions I have ever had. Did I wish I was in Washington to fix a website? Let me answer that. I have a single-word answer. No. Please do not edit out the sarcasm of that answer.
IC: Don’t worry, it is staying.
RE: I don’t want it to be missed on your readers.
IC: I am not going to ask about Hillary Clinton and Obama but—
RE: [Laughs.] What a setup for that question.
IC: Well, I already got shit for the last one.
RE: You are the first person to swear in this interview.
IC: The tape recorder will reveal that. But I wanted to ask how you think the two Clintons are different as leaders.
RE: I would actually start with the similarities. They are both incredibly committed to public service. Look, I love this job. I love it even when it is tough. To deal with what you have to deal with as mayor or president, there has to be an overriding psychological or professional or emotional gratification that would let you go through all the angst. You have to have an overriding sense of mission, which they do.
Both of them would agree, I think, that while Bill Clinton was seen as centrist and Hillary less so during the White House years, that is not true. They are clearly different speakers, which is central to leadership. Bill Clinton can go with or without a text. I think Hillary is equally eloquent when she lets go of that text. I have seen her connect with people in a way that is unbelievable.
IC: Last time, she was best when she wasn’t the “inevitable” candidate.
RE: You always try to connect with people, but what she then realized was—I don’t want to say, “Be yourself,” but don’t be so disciplined. [He starts shaking, mimicking a neurotic person.] For all the problems of authenticity, people love public officials who are who they are.
IC: You mentioned your dad went to Israel. What do you think went wrong at the beginning of the administration with the Obama-Netanyahu relationship?
RE: So since I brought up Israel, I get to answer questions like that?
IC: It was a segue. I did my best.
RE: I give you credit for trying. [Laughs.] I wish we could talk off the record. [Goes off the record for a couple minutes.]
IC: If I can go back on the record, how optimistic are you about a peace deal?
RE: I am uncharacteristically optimistic, just on the optimism side of fifty percent.
IC: Why now?
RE: I think it is a framework deal, which is different and easier than a final deal. And I think the parties have enough in common about the framework, which they have known for ten years.
IC: But why is there the will now?
RE: Hamas is as weak as it’s going to be. Abbas is ready to work with Israel. Israel has a security concern involving geography. But geography does not have the same value it did in 1967. And I want to say that there is nothing I just said that major figures in the national security apparatus of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] and Israel haven’t said publicly. Nothing!
IC: Sometimes American politicians can’t say things that have already been said in Israel—
RE: You are not allowed to here! Because the American—well, for whatever reason, that is a whole different debate. I don’t want to talk about this. It is not my business. I don’t really care. But Israel’s national security apparatus has concluded what I have observed. [Laughs.]
IC: At the risk of making an awkward segue that you will mock—
RE: That was light jest. You haven’t heard mocking yet.
IC: How do you think the GOP has changed since you left Washington in 2011?
RE: It has been going downhill. Washington is not broken. The GOP is broken. They need a Bill Clinton moment with someone to figure things out. Let me just say, and I don’t agree with his policies so let me put a warning label on the side of the packet here: If George W. Bush had never gotten in the disastrous Iraq war, he was trying to modernize the party on a series of fronts. But on tax and foreign policy, everything cratered.
IC: Chris Christie was going to be the savior.
RE: He “was.” You said it in past tense.
IC: Do you think it is past tense?
RE: I do. Nothing is ever absolute in politics, but I am willing to go out on a limb and join you. It may take more than an immediate time frame for him to recover, and he doesn’t have more than that.
RE: I am listening [for the next question].
IC: How is governing different in Washington versus Chicago?
RE: One you can actually run, and the other you don’t have a chance.
IC: I think I know which is which.
RE: You don’t get any bonus points for figuring that out. Look, I can’t imagine being mayor and not having had the experience working for President Clinton or President Obama, or, for that matter, working in Congress. On the other hand, I think I would have been a better adviser had I been mayor first. If I had had this job first, I could have seen the implications of things I was doing.
IC: Is it easier to set goals as mayor than in Washington? It seems like there might be fewer constraints in Chicago.
RE: It is not harder. Because of the powers and the history of this office, you are able to maneuver the government. The challenge for the president is—I don’t want to analyze this president.
IC: Forget this president. How about the challenge of the presidency?
RE: There is a diffusion of power. Here there is a focus of power. Let me give an example, and I don’t want to tout what we are doing, but since you asked. [Laughs.] We are redoing every playground in the city of Chicago. It is all paid for. All new equipment. Done. [Claps hands.]
I believe in parks as a dramatic improvement in the quality of life in the city. We are adding parks everywhere. We are trying to get the Interior Department to designate a local park to be a national designation, and it is like a three-year process. They have interest in doing it, but my God. In Chicago, I wanted to make sure every child in four years time was a ten-minute walk from a new park or playground. It’s done. We are going to get there one year ahead of time.
IC: You don’t have a Congress that prohibits you from passing the smallest thing.
RE: We have fifty aldermen but we do have a ... hmmm.
IC: A working majority?
RE: [Bursts into laughter.] We have a can-do spirit. Washington doesn’t think they have a lot on the line. We have a lot on the line.
IC: They do have a lot on the line, they just don’t act like it.
RE: That is true.
IC: A lot of mayors in the Democratic Party, or mayors like Michael Bloomberg who are ideologically similar to you or Obama, often seem to be tougher on fiscal and labor issues at the local level.
RE: I am not sure I understand the question.
IC: Mayors have to balance a budget or deal with pensions. Democrats at the local level seem more willing to be tough on these issues.
RE: I would change the terminology around the word “tough.” I think the president is hardheaded. My choices are more prevalent to people in the way they live their lives. We are getting to a point where we can make a pension payment or pave a road but we can’t do both. I am not tough on pensions. I am realistic. There is a difference. It is also realistic from a fiscal side that, if all we do is make no changes, I would have to raise taxes at a level that would harm the economy. I would become the federal government.
IC: With Bill de Blasio, we are seeing cleavages within the Democratic Party. Pensions. Negotiation with the unions. Charter schools.3
RE: There are divisions, or I would call them differences. But I just left my staff meeting. We have differences, too.
IC: You can fire them.
RE: [Grimaces.] They’re good. They work hard. Doesn’t mean they agree with me. I think too much of the debate in Washington is about ideological gradations. I have a piece today [in the Chicago Sun-Times] about the Earned Income Tax Credit. I have negotiated to expand it. Now, is that considered left or right?
RE: It’s full of shit, OK? [Raises voice.] It’s crap.
IC: What’s full of shit?
RE: I consider myself a progressive. I have a passion for people who work. To me, this is about forward looking versus backward looking. Ideological gradations are the wrong way to look at it.
IC: Figures like de Blasio and Elizabeth Warren have been saying that inequality should be the focus of the party. Is inequality looking backwards or forwards?
RE: I think about this as a mayor. We have a great city. The principal reason is the people. We have very strong middle-class neighborhoods. The big challenge is the cities that become bell curves without the bell. I know Elizabeth says, “We are going to be the party of income inequality.” I want to stand up for the middle class. What we do with parks and public safety makes neighborhoods viable. You are in the city with the fastest-growing business district. The problem is whether it can still be livable with literally just the extremes. I will forget all the others talking about where the party should go. I am not interested in that.
IC: OK, but are there things going on with Wall Street and the broader economy that make it harder to protect the middle class?
RE: That is a different question than income inequality. I am giving you a different perspective. I am the mayor of the city. [Warren and de Blasio] want to have a debate. It is a relevant debate. But my focus is making sure Chicago is livable for all.
IC: Put aside inequality. I am wondering what you think about broader trends and the middle class in this country.
RE: Isaac, let’s just step back. Rather than the exodus of middle-class families to the suburbs, we have reentry into the city. We are at an incredible moment that is actually not momentary. It would be helpful if the federal government were a partner on infrastructure investment and research.
To the larger economy, the biggest thing that is happening is a skills deficit that inhibits us from doing what we need to do. Having a four-year college degree or better is key. I am not for this [smiles mischievously], but B.P. in Indiana is expanding a huuuuuuge refinery. They are bringing in people from Alabama and Kentucky because we don’t have enough pipefitters up here.
Look, the banks are going to pay what they are going to pay. Lawyers and accountants are going to get paid. But there are jobs that can pay people well, and we have been absent as a country on that.
IC: This isn’t an issue where you seem angry, yelling that Wall Street needs to pay.
RE: Look, I am not defending Wall Street. Wall Street has screwed up enough. But let me answer it this way: Wall Street is not to blame that we had a seven percent graduation rate in city community colleges. I fixed it—it is now fourteen percent. I doubled it in two years. Wall Street is not responsible for that. We allowed the colleges to deteriorate.
[Sits right on the edge of the chair, waving his finger in my face.] I met a young man on 35th street, right across from what you would know as Comiskey Park. I am shaking hands, and he says he was at Harold Washington College. He was getting a B.A. He said he works at Target and goes to school full-time. He is doing everything you want him to do. Now, can I say in good conscience that Harold Washington will help him the way Sarah Lawrence and Northwestern helped me? Where did you go?
IC: U.C. Davis.
RE: Well, U.C. Davis has economic value. It meant something when you put it on your résumé. Did Harold Washington mean the same to him? I don’t blame Wall Street for that.
IC: What do you think when you hear the word “gentrification”?
RE: It is funny you are asking in this sense. I just had a meeting with my head of economic development. There is an area called Fulton Market. You would think it was a typical area that is on fire. Google is moving in. Well, it’s not really on fire because then we wouldn’t be doing the interview. But there are restaurants in that neighborhood. It has exploded. It is one of the hottest areas in the country from a real estate perspective. We designed it in a way to protect the manufacturing, too.
I know there are a lot of bad connotations. High rents and people being forced out who have been there for years. And there is a reason it has that connotation. But if we are smarter about it, we can do things that allow improvements.
IC: What is the role for government in dealing with these issues? How active should the city be?
RE: Very active. Zoning laws, land use, all kinds of things. It can’t be the Wild West.
IC: Are you putting any pressure on the president to move his library here?
RE: You asked the right question in this sense: He will make the decision. Chicago is where he started his career in public life, because the same things that motivated him as a community organizer made him run for public office. And I think it is only fitting that it should be here, the place where his wife’s family is from, where his daughters grew up, and where he started his career. I will remind him.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. This interview has been edited and condensed.