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.”