In These New Times

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Obama’s partisan, profane confidant reins it in

Posted by seumasach on January 26, 2009





25th January, 2009

Earlier this month, Barack Obama was meeting with the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and other lawmakers when Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, began nervously cracking a knuckle.

Obama then turned to complain to Emanuel about his noisy habit.

At which point, Emanuel held the offending knuckle up to Obama’s left ear and, like an annoying little brother, snapped off a few special cracks.

The episode, relayed by someone familiar with the incident, underscores some essential truths about Emanuel: He is brash, has a deep comfort level with his new boss and has been ever-present at Obama’s side of late, in meetings, on podia and in numerous photographs.

There he was, standing at Obama’s desk in one of the first Oval Office pictures; there he was again, playfully thumbing his nose at his former House colleagues during the inauguration; there he was, accompanying the president to a meeting with congressional leaders on Friday


Emanuel is arguably the second most powerful man in the country and, just a few days into his tenure, already one of the highest-profile chiefs of staff in recent memory. He starred in his own Mad magazine cartoon, won the “Your New Obama Hottie” contest on and has become something of a paparazzi icon around Washington.

In recent months, he has played a critical role in the selection and courtship of nearly every cabinet member and key White House staff member.

Renowned as a fierce partisan, he has been an ardent ambassador to Republicans, including Obama’s defeated rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona. He has exerted influence on countless decisions; in meetings, administration officials say, Obama often allows him to speak first and last.

“You can see how he listens and reacts to Rahm,” said Ron Klain, chief of staff to Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. “You can see that his opinion is being shaped.”

One reason Emanuel, 49, has drawn so much attention is that he seems to be in a kind of recalibration mode.

How will the feisty, bombastic and occasionally impulsive former congressman blend with the cool, collegial and deliberate culture of Obama World? And one that is trying to foster bipartisanship? This is someone who once wrote in Campaign and Elections magazine that “the untainted Republican has not yet been invented” and who two years ago – according to a book about Emanuel (“The Thumpin”‘ by Naftali Bendavid) – announced to his staff that Republicans are “bad people who deserve a two-by-four upside their heads.”

It is clear to friends and colleagues that Emanuel is trying to rein himself in, lower his voice and even cut down on his use of profanity.

“As chief of staff, you take on the aura and image and, in some instance, the political values of the person you work for,” said the former Representative Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican who is now transportation secretary. “I think he’s beginning to morph himself into the Obama image.”

Emanuel acknowledged in an interview that stereotypes of him as a relentless hothead had some factual basis. But it is an exaggerated or outdated picture, he said.

“I’m not yelling at people; I’m not jumping on tables,” he said. “That’s a campaign. Being the chief of staff of a government is different. You have different tools in your toolbox.”

Emanuel, who had hopes of becoming House speaker, has stepped into a job characterized by short tenures – just under two and a half years, on average – high burnout rates and the need to subjugate personal ambitions to the service of the president.

He is not accustomed to fading discreetly into the background. As a staff member in the Clinton White House, a three-term House member from Chicago and the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he was viewed by many as a consummate purveyor of a crass, kneecapping brand of politics.

Obama acknowledged as much at a 2005 roast for Emanuel, who is a former ballet dancer, during which Obama credited him with being “the first to adopt Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ for dance” (a number that included “a lot of kicks below the waist”). When Emanuel lost part of his middle finger while cutting meat at a fast-food restaurant as a teenager, Obama joked, the accident “rendered him practically mute.”

The video of that roast has become a recent sensation on the Internet and buttressed a view among some Republicans that Emanuel’s appointment was, in the words of the House minority leader, Representative John Boehner of Ohio, “an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil.”


While acknowledging that he can be something of a showman, friends say Emanuel has calmed considerably over the years.

“He’s more temperate now,” said David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser and longtime Emanuel friend who dismissed much of his flamboyant reputation as “pure myth.” He added, “A lot of it is a reputation he earned as a younger guy.

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