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The Chief

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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.


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