Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

The Chief

You think it’s so great being Rahm Emanuel?


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.


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift