The Chief

by Noam Scheiber | March 3, 2010

One of the enduring mysteries about White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is why he took the job in the first place. At the time he accepted it, he was the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, a position he’d attained with considerable effort. Two years earlier, Emanuel had chaired the House Democrats’ campaign arm and led the party to a 31-seat majority after a decade of futility. It was a grueling undertaking--Emanuel shed 14 pounds during the two-year stint, went months without a decent night’s sleep, consumed appalling quantities of caffeine--and it entailed significant professional risk. Had Emanuel come up short in an election cycle many Democrats deemed their best shot in years, he might have spent the rest of his career on the backbenches. Instead, on the eve of Barack Obama’s victory, only three colleagues stood between him and the coveted House speakership, and they were all two decades older. 

So why was Emanuel so keen to walk away? The short answer is that he wasn’t. Once a day between the moment Obama offered the job and the moment he took it a week later, Emanuel would call his brother Zeke--a prominent bioethicist who would later join the administration--and rant about why he should say no: “I have a great life. I’m going to rise up in the House leadership, be the first Jewish speaker,” he’d bellow. Emanuel would continue in this vein for 20, 30, sometimes 40 minutes. Then he would abruptly hang up, only to start in all over again the next day.

Still, there was never much doubt he would sign on. “He had twenty-seven reasons--he wants to spend time with his kids, be a devoted father. They’re at a tender age. I mean, all of them were right. But too bad,” says Zeke, nodding at the family ethic of public service. “He knew he had to take the job. He had no choice. It was his duty. ... It was everything that had gone into forty-nine years of him being raised.”

One can understand Emanuel’s hesitation. Laboring as White House chief of staff is fantastically difficult under any circumstances, something Emanuel learned well as an aide to Bill Clinton. Former George W. Bush chief of staff Andy Card famously arrived at the White House by 5:30 each morning and stayed until eight or nine each night. But laboring as chief of staff during the first year or two of a presidency can be a prolonged form of torture.

A new White House tends to be heavily populated with campaign personnel, many of whom have little experience at governing, much less in the West Wing. Yet they will have earned a claim on a job whether or not the chief of staff wants them there. This dynamic typically fades over time, as campaign veterans get replaced by operatives with a less personal connection to the president. When Erskine Bowles took over as Bill Clinton’s third chief of staff in late 1996, he brought in two new deputies, Sylvia Matthews and John Podesta. But the tension can be a major source of frustration in the early going. And, in fact, Emanuel was denied the luxury of choosing his own deputies. (One of his preferred candidates, Tom Donilon, later resurfaced as deputy national security advisor.)

On top of which, Emanuel has his own unique set of frustrations. By virtue of his political successes and his outsized personality--the nickname “Rahmbo” sums it up--he is the object of near-constant mythologizing. On the right, there is a tendency to view him as a kind of Democratic Karl Rove--a brilliant if diabolical operative who excels in the dark art of psychological warfare. When Emanuel ran the House Democrats’ campaign operation in 2006, the Republican leadership had a habit of blaming him for the party’s freakish procession of scandals, such as the timing of the Mark Foley imbroglio and the indictment of Tom DeLay.

Meanwhile, to activists on the left, who have viewed Emanuel as a crypto-conservative since his Clinton-administration efforts to pass NAFTA, there is a persistent belief that he has maneuvered into the role of shadow president. In each passing disappointment--a too-small stimulus, a too-generous bank bailout, a variety of health care compromises--the left finds more evidence of his ascendant worldview. One prominent liberal radio personality refers to Emanuel as “Barack Obama’s Dick Cheney,” while Jane Hamsher, proprietor of the highly trafficked blog Firedoglake, has agitated for his ouster.

If anything, though, Emanuel is the anti-Cheney. The former Bush vice president was famous for leaving few fingerprints; often, senior White House aides weren’t even aware of his involvement on an issue. But his influence touched every major administration initiative. Emanuel, by contrast, leaves more fingerprints than a twelve-fingered larcenist--thick, greasy, deeply grooved fingerprints. And yet, going down the list of Obama initiatives, one is struck by the number that resist his designs.

This probably doesn’t come as a surprise to Emanuel himself, who is shrewd enough to have foreseen that he wouldn’t have a free hand to impose his own governing strategy. But then, merely anticipating such constraints doesn’t make them painless. In fact, some of these same strains lie at the heart of the White House’s recent troubles.

To appreciate the sheer reach of the Emanuel legend, one need look no further than the upper rungs of the Obama administration. “Everyone in government believes they’re working for Rahm,” one Obama official recently told me. “If I were a cabinet secretary, and Rahm called me up and said, ‘I think you should go left,’ I would go left.” This official recalls once having a casual conversation in economic adviser Larry Summers’s West Wing office, when Emanuel popped his head in. Both men stopped talking and reflexively stiffened. “He was not coming in to shoot the shit--‘Hey guys, what are you doing this weekend?’” this official says. “You sat up, paid attention. He has that way about him.”

At 50, Emanuel has the lean, taut look of a lifelong swimmer, with broad shoulders and distractingly prominent quadriceps. But at the heart of the Emanuel mystique is the family patois, which lurches between pronounced curtness and vivid, sometimes scatological, imagery. Emanuel will casually toss off quips like, “You’re in the bowels of nothin,’ man.” One former colleague recalls making two or three requests during a sensitive negotiation, only to have Emanuel respond: “Well, I guess if I can take care of Bill Clinton’s blow jobs, I can take care of that.”

And then there are the f-bombs, which Emanuel reels off like a verbal tic, sometimes embedding them in other words with Germanic aplomb. There is, for example, “Fucknutsville” (his pet name for Washington) and “knucklefuck” (an honorific bestowed on Republican opponents). In administration meetings, Emanuel will occasionally announce, “I think it’s fucking idiotic, but it’s your call.” (That would be Rahm-speak for: “You have more expertise than I do on this subject.”) He’s even been known to use the imprecation as a term of endearment, as when he signs off friendly phone calls: “Fuck you. See you later. I love you.” As Phil Kellam, one of Emanuel’s star recruits from the 2006 election cycle, recently joked to me, “If you could sum up Rahm Emanuel, it would be: big ideas, big mouth, big heart, little finger.” (Emanuel lost half his middle finger in a teenage accident.)

Among those most fluent in the Emanuel vernacular are members of the Obama economic team, with whom the chief of staff interacts constantly. For example, on February 10, 2009, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner delivered a speech laying out the various steps he would take to revive the financial system. The pundits promptly panned it, and the markets began to swoon. Both had expected Geithner to deliver a detailed set of remedies; instead, the secretary offered only the broad contours of a strategy.

Emanuel went ballistic. “He was like, ‘How could they have let expectations get so out of whack?’” recalls one official. Soon after, he began to take a special interest in Geithner’s work--in the way that a Jewish mother can be said to take a special interest in her son’s romantic life.

A quick review of Geithner’s schedule from one week last February will illustrate the point. On four of the five days, Geithner attended a White House senior staff meeting from 8:15 a.m. to 8:45 a.m., which Emanuel runs. In addition to this, Geithner joined a conference call with Emanuel and Larry Summers on the afternoon of Monday, February 16. On Tuesday, Geithner had a call with Emanuel scheduled from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Wednesday afternoon brought Geithner to an Oval Office meeting with Emanuel, Summers, and the president. This was followed by an hour-long meeting in Emanuel’s office. Geithner was back at the White House Thursday morning for a one-on-one meeting with Emanuel; Emanuel then called that afternoon and spoke to Geithner for 15 minutes. The next morning, it was Geithner who called Emanuel. A few hours later, Geithner turned up for a 90-minute meeting in Emanuel’s office.

When the Treasury Department released Geithner’s schedule last fall, the media made much of his conversations with Wall Street CEOs. But, as one official told me, “the interesting story wasn’t that Tim speaks to bankers--every treasury secretary does. It’s the extent of time he’s on the phone with Rahm.”

And yet, even here, the Cheney-Rove-Rasputin analogy breaks down. Emanuel wasn’t dictating policy to Geithner. Rather, the mantra of the meetings was “no more surprises.” (The president had inadvertently added to Geithner’s February 10 fiasco by talking up the speech beforehand; Emanuel partly blamed himself for the mix-up.) As another official describes it, “Rahm did not spend a lot of time on the ‘What, we have to bail friggin’ AIG out? It’s going to kill us politically.’ He just started making sure everyone was communicating.” Emanuel also wanted to ensure that, as the administration rolled out specific proposals--toxic-asset purchases, relief for troubled homeowners--Treasury sold them preemptively to journalists and Wall Street muckety-mucks.

Granted, as honest brokers go, this chief of staff can be a bit more full-contact than most. The day before Geithner unveiled his asset-purchase plan last March, Emanuel spoke with him five times by phone. Nor is it the case that Emanuel lacks strong preferences. It’s just that these preferences tend to be tactical rather than substantive. And, unlike a Dick Cheney type, they evince a distinct lack of ideology.

Consider, for instance, the suspicion that Emanuel favors a loosely repurposed Republicanism, something you often hear on the left. There is no question that Emanuel has sometimes alienated liberal constituency groups. As a member of Congress, he often recruited pro-gun, anti-abortion candidates to compete in swing districts. He co-authored a book with Bruce Reed, a fellow Clinton alum who now runs the Democratic Leadership Council, proposing centrist ideas like automatic 401(k) enrollment and universal children’s health care. (The latter actually resembles the health-reform “Plan B” circulating through Washington these days.)

But, while Emanuel has long been skeptical of the political merits of a robust liberalism, the problem with the broader ideological critique is that it’s at odds with some of his behavior. As early as the transition, according to several administration officials, Emanuel was adamant that reform of the financial sector proceed immediately. He insisted it simply wasn’t politically viable to pump hundreds of billions of dollars into the banks without showing voters that they wouldn’t have to ante up all over again a few years hence. Geithner objected that fast-tracking reform would only create more uncertainty and could paralyze the financial system. And there were legitimate considerations on both sides. But, suffice it to say, no one out to coddle the banks would have taken Emanuel’s position.

Perhaps more to the point, unlike Cheney and Rove, Emanuel manages to lose an awful lot of internal battles for someone with an ostensible vise grip on the presidency. In the end, the financial overhaul plans did slide by a few months. Emanuel also famously disagreed with Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to prosecute September 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in civilian court, brooding that it would alienate South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a potential Republican ally. He had reservations about the size of the buildup in Afghanistan, which he worried could turn into a military (and therefore political) quagmire. On health care, Emanuel was one of several senior White House aides who were skeptical of pushing a comprehensive bill last year. Emanuel didn’t even entirely win on economic personnel. He favored sending Summers back to Treasury, until the president hit it off with Geithner and offered him the top job.

When Barack Obama won his U.S. Senate primary back in March 2004, the campaign suddenly required a whole new level of sophistication. The campaign manager at the time was a skilled, if little known operative named Jim Cauley, who realized the situation had changed and offered to step aside. Obama declined--even then, it wasn’t his style to fire people. But he didn’t exactly send Cauley a ringing endorsement, either. What he sent him was Rahm Emanuel.

Though Emanuel had generally been aloof from the campaign, he was a longtime friend of Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod. So, with another Obama confidant, Valerie Jarrett, at his side, Emanuel spent two hours grilling Cauley about every facet of the upcoming race: how he would raise enough money, hire the right employees, beef up the turnout operation. The unmistakable message was that the Obama high command wasn’t sure Cauley was up to the job. “He was very, ‘Jimmy, pick your game up,’” Cauley says. “Everyone understood where we were.”

For Emanuel, the assignment would in some ways foreshadow his role in Obamaland: He was not exactly of Team Obama, like Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, who’d arrived just after the primary to oversee communications strategy. But he was sometimes enlisted by Team Obama to perform the tasks the candidate was loath to perform himself.

The pattern would persist once Obama arrived in the U.S. Senate--Emanuel would even remark on it. By 2006, Emanuel was running the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and Obama had become an Illinois power broker. Both men waded into a Democratic primary for a Chicago-area House seat. The race pitted Christine Cegelis, a darling of liberal activists, against Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq veteran who’d lost both legs in the war and had been recruited by the party establishment. When Duckworth narrowly won the primary, the activists singled out Emanuel for special abuse, and he was quick to hit back. “I try to expand the playing field, and then it’s, ‘Oh, he’s bigfooting,’” he protested, according to an entertaining book about the 2006 elections by The Wall Street Journal’s Naftali Bendavid. “You think Obama wasn’t involved? [Illinois Senator Dick] Durbin? But who gets blamed? Me. Tough guy Rahm. No one wants to blame Barack, because he is who he is. So fuck you.”

As Obama closed in on the presidency, he and his top aides turned to Obamaland’s unofficial head-knocker for the role of chief of staff. Recent Democratic presidents had made the mistake of choosing a sentimental candidate--as Clinton did in hiring his childhood friend, Mack McLarty. Obama had the wherewithal to resist this trap. “Really smart people know their strengths and weaknesses,” an administration official recently told me. “The president knows his own weaknesses. Being the heavy is not his strong suit.”

Emanuel not only had the right sensibility. His loyalty and Washington know-how were beyond question. But the very same reasons Obama needed Emanuel also made it a less-than-seamless fit.

The president-elect, after all, stood for a new era of post-partisanship and good government as much as any particular policy goal. His top campaign aides were exquisitely attuned to the strength of his personal brand. Emanuel, by contrast, was a born vote counter--an exponent of the view that civic republicanism plus 49 senators gets you exactly ... nothing. “Those guys still have a campaign mentality,” one administration official recently told me, referring to Axelrod and Gibbs. “It’s not as clean as I’m describing it, but they’re naturally protective of the guy--of the things he said and did on the campaign. There’s a core tension between cleaning up Washington and getting stuff done. And Rahm is a gets-stuff-done person.”

This is, in many respects, as it should be. A presidency must stand for something more than notching victories, and the two powerful aides are well aware of this. “I’ve always found that my job is to try and make sure that what we communicate is faithful to who the president is, what his values and beliefs are,” Axelrod says. Likewise, the debate between those who tend to a president’s campaign themes and those who might downplay them is often a healthy one. Nevertheless, there have been moments when these same tensions--or, more precisely, the president’s unwillingness to resolve them--have set back the administration agenda.

 

Last summer, as public support for health care reform began to recede, the president convened a series of meetings demanding to know why Democrats were losing the communications war. For his part, Axelrod argued that the administration lacked a compelling bad guy, having cut deals and observed cease-fires with industry lobbies to help ease the bill through Congress. “Axelrod would say, ‘We don’t have an enemy. During the campaign, we fought against insurance companies. Now we don’t have one,’” recalls one administration official. Emanuel would invariably counter that the deals were essential to holding the package together. Jeopardize the deals, and you risked jeopardizing the whole project.

From the very beginning, Emanuel had a clean, elegant theory for how to guide a health care bill through Congress. He’d closely studied each previous failure from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton and concluded that time was their biggest enemy. Because remaking the health care system is such a complex task, it necessarily requires complex legislation. And there hasn’t been a 1,000-page–plus bill in history that didn’t start to stink after several months. It’s just too easy for opponents to cull a few smelly details.

So Emanuel placed a premium on speed. He nagged constantly, setting numerous deadlines: for discussions to conclude, for congressional committees to act, for floor votes to be held. He explored a variety of procedural and substantive options so that progress could never be halted. “He never wanted to have a moment where we didn’t have a move,” says one colleague.

The corollary to this theory was that speed required momentum. If the hundreds of players in Congress and the health care industry believed reform would pass, then they would act so as to make that likely. And, if they didn’t believe reform would pass, then that too would become self-fulfilling. So Emanuel not only hashed out agreements with interest groups--he had them trumpeted loudly. He let it be known he was considering reconciliation (a Senate procedure prohibiting a filibuster) so that it loomed over Republicans. Each time another committee passed a health care bill (there were five in all), the White House hailed it as the second coming of the Voting Rights Act.

For the first half of last year, this was almost all you needed to know about the administration’s strategy. Then, in July, the White House faced a key decision. Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, probably the most important of the five committees considering health care, had spent months negotiating with his Republican counterpart, Chuck Grassley, with little to show for it. Emanuel was getting antsy. He gathered his top aides and pressed for a way to hurry the process along. The Senate labor committee had produced its own health care bill. Perhaps, Emanuel wondered, Majority Leader Harry Reid could bypass Baucus and bring it to the floor. Or maybe Baucus could just stop bargaining with Grassley and let Reid move a more partisan version of his bill.

But, in the end, Obama himself favored letting Baucus negotiate until September. (Though Axelrod stresses that the president was “just as impatient as Rahm was to get moving.”) In fairness, even internal skeptics believed a bipartisan package might be attainable. The problem was that, overlaid on a strategy based on speed and momentum, the extra two months exacted a major cost. As the Baucus talks lingered, the very same steps Emanuel had taken to build momentum began to weigh on the broader effort. “At the end of the day, the rational person in Ohio is thinking, ‘If Pharma’s for the deal, it must be good for Pharma,’” says one administration official.

This, in turn, forced the administration to make a second fateful call: Should it try to defuse the public backlash by turning on some of the industry groups? Or should it stick with Emanuel’s cooptation strategy and press ahead? Obama ultimately decided on a bit of both.

That same month, to the surprise of the leading insurers, the White House suddenly opened up a rhetorical offensive against them. Once again, the decision was defensible on its own terms. It even produced some short-term p.r. gains. Still, when layered onto the existing strategy, the new offensive created real confusion. At the same time the administration was bashing insurers, it sought to preserve deals with drugmakers and hospitals. The new attacks sent mixed signals not just to the interest groups, but also to the public at large.

It’s a rather remarkable testament to Team Obama (not to mention Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) that they managed to shepherd health care through the House and Senate late last year despite these complications. If not for the upset election of Scott Brown in Massachusetts--a development virtually no one inside or outside the White House recognized soon enough to do anything about--Obama would almost certainly have signed the most sweeping domestic policy legislation in a generation by now.

But Brown did win, triggering an agonizing, slow-motion meltdown that has yet to be fully contained. Emanuel himself deserves significant blame for failing to produce a backup plan once Brown seemed likely to win. Instead, chaos reigned in the aftermath of the election. Otherwise levelheaded Democrats, like Barney Frank, suggested reform might be dead. The president himself seemed to hint that the bill would have to be scaled back. It’s possible that no amount of White House intervention could have stanched the frenzy. But, in retrospect, it’s hard to believe there wasn’t an alternative to the post-election leadership vacuum.

Yet, looked at another way, the episode may be the most emphatic vindication of the Emanuel approach one could ever imagine. The fact that Scott Brown is now the forty-first Republican senator is all the proof you need that nothing is certain in politics. In such a world, it’s advisable to finish your business sooner rather than later, and to leave as little to fate as possible. Or, as one administration official summed it up for me: “Everything that happened was confirmation that [Emanuel] was right. It was a high-wire act. Shit happens.”

In February,The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank penned a column defending Emanuel against a rising drumbeat of criticism, including some recent calls for his resignation. The column made several valid points about Emanuel and his value to the president. But it also indulged in caricature. While holding up Emanuel as an all-knowing sage, Milbank dismissed Gibbs as a “hyper-partisan former campaign flack” and Axelrod as a man so “blinded by Obama love” he can't think clearly.

The reaction was immediate and intense--multiple sources told me it had created tension within the White House. It also, in some respects, epitomized the Emanuel dilemma. Contrary to his cut-throat reputation, Emanuel has generally been a team player during his time as chief of staff. He tends to resist cooperation with the dozens of profiles that are written about him. He is quick to defend colleagues from the kvetching of journalists and pundits, and he has thrown himself into major initiatives whose logic he disagrees with. On health care, one administration official told me, “It may not be the thing he wanted to do his whole life. But he put his shoulder to the wheel to get the thing done.” Above all, no one I spoke with for this piece questioned Emanuel’s loyalty to Obama. “I’ve talked to Rahm every day,” says his friend Paul Begala. “In the year and a month, whatever it’s been, I’ve never heard him complain about the president.”

Which raised an intriguing paradox. On the one hand, no one seemed to believe Emanuel had engineered the Milbank piece--even critics conceded that, if nothing else, he was too savvy for such a stunt. Nonetheless, almost all these people believed the Milbank piece was a problem for Emanuel, because less-informed outsiders would assume he was behind it, prompting a cascade of chatter about White House infighting.

It’s not hard to see how this could wear on a man. At one point, when speaking to a source close to Emanuel, I referred to him as Obama’s “first chief of staff,” then corrected myself and allowed that he could turn out to be the only chief of staff. The source affected a kind of gallows-humor tone and assured me Emanuel would not be the only one. I began to understand where the various Rahm-is-leaving rumors come from.

True to form, Emanuel refused to speak to me on the record. But, in early March, I asked Axelrod the question I would have put to him: Has the president’s goal of promoting transparency, civility, and accountability worked at cross-purposes with his chief of staff’s strategy for hustling the agenda through Congress? “Look, there are things the president insisted on that wouldn’t have been at the top of Rahm’s list,” Axelrod told me. “The kinds of things the president felt strongly about as a way of keeping faith with his fundamental belief that we have to change the way we do business in this town. It wasn’t that Rahm was negative on that, but he would not have made them the first thing on his list. 

In any case, Axelrod continued, it’s hard to believe these pledges rank very high among Emanuel’s many burdens. “Look, it’s a tough time to govern. We inherited multiple crises. And a very sour economy. And that creates political problems in and of itself. Governing is very, very tough,” he said.

There is considerable truth to this. On the other hand, the enormity of the challenges Barack Obama faces, and the ambitiousness of his program, mean he has almost no margin for error. Indeed, Emanuel--the grizzled, battle-hardened Washington insider--was brought into the Obama White House for precisely this reason, because Obama was shrewd enough to recognize the chasm between campaigning and governing, and that what works in one domain can be debilitating in the other. Put simply, Emanuel is the chief of staff most presidents turn to when they realize their first chief of staff has failed them. To hire Rahm is to skip right to Leon Panetta without first enduring Mack McLarty.

But what we’re discovering is that Obama wasn’t prepared to give up on his campaign ideals so quickly. Deep down, he didn’t necessarily want a hard-nosed insider to execute his agenda; maybe he just wanted to want such a person. For all of his flaws, Rahm Emanuel was supposed to be the man who helped Barack Obama do things the easy way rather than learn lessons the hard way. But, sometimes, deciding to go the easy way can be the hardest thing of all.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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