Rahm Emanuel on the job--Rahm Emanuel’s office, which is no more than a three-second walk from the Oval Office, is as neat as a Marine barracks. On his desk, the files and documents, including leatherbound folders from the National Security Council, are precisely arranged, each one parallel with the desk’s edge. During a visit hours before Congress passed President Barack Obama’s stimulus package, on Friday, February 13th, I absently jostled one of Emanuel’s heavy wooden letter trays a few degrees off kilter. He glared at me disapprovingly. Next to his computer monitor is a smaller screen that looks like a handheld G.P.S. device and tells Emanuel where the President and senior White House officials are at all times. Over all, the office suggests the workspace of someone who, in a more psychologized realm than the West Wing of the White House and with a less exacting job than that of the President’s chief of staff, might be cited for “control issues.”
Because the atmosphere of crisis is now so thick at the White House, any moment of triumph has a fleeting half-life, but the impending passage of the seven-hundred-and-eighty-seven-billion-dollar stimulus bill provided, at least for an afternoon, a sense of satisfaction. As Emanuel spoke about the complications of the legislation, he was quick to credit colleagues for shepherding the bill to victory—Peter Orszag, the budget director; Phil Schiliro, the legislative-affairs director; Jason Furman, the deputy director of the National Economic Council––but, in fact, nearly everyone in official Washington acknowledges that, besides Obama himself, Emanuel had done the most to coax and bully the bill out of Congress and onto the President’s desk for signing.
That afternoon, Emanuel and his team were already concentrating on the next major project: the President’s budget, which will be released on February 26th. Emanuel had just come from a budget meeting in the Roosevelt Room with the President’s senior staff. (The President was downstairs in the Situation Room; coincidentally or not, hours later U.S. Predators attacked a Pakistani Taliban compound in South Waziristan.) After the budget meeting broke up, staffers hurried through the West Wing reception area: Carol Browner, who is in charge of energy policy; Larry Summers, Obama’s top economic adviser; Gene Sperling, an adviser to the Treasury Secretary; Orszag; Furman. Like Emanuel, all had worked in the Clinton Administration, all are strong-willed, and all know how to navigate the White House bureaucracy to advance their views. Emanuel personally recruited several of them, and it is now his job to manage their competing egos.
Hard copies of that morning’s issue of Politico were strewn across desks in the West Wing; the paper depicted Emanuel on its front page as a lordly giant ruling over the White House, Congress, and the rest of Washington’s political architecture. Not all the world’s commentators, however, were as awestruck by his achievements. In Granma, the Cuban government’s leading propaganda organ, Fidel Castro wrote of Emanuel, “Never in my life have I heard or read about any student or compatriot with that name, among tens of thousands.” After a rambling meditation on the similarities between the chief of staff and Immanuel Kant, the retired jefe concluded that “Obama, Emanuel and all of the brilliant politicians and economists who have come together would not suffice to solve the growing problems of U.S. capitalist society.”
Emanuel, for his part, seemed indifferent both to the praise in Washington and to the oddball critique from Havana. In a few hours, he would be leaving for a ski trip with his family to Park City, Utah, and he was anxious to get out of the White House and start the weekend. Asked about Castro’s article, he said, “Well, you know, ever since I stopped sending him my holiday card he’s been ticked off. I don’t know what to think about it. Do you know what I’m thinking about? I’m going to finally get to see my kids after a month. So that’s all I give a fuck about.”
Unlike recent chiefs of staff from the Bush and Clinton eras, who tended to be relatively quiet inside players, Emanuel is a former congressional leader, a Democratic Party power, and one of the more colorful Beltway celebrities. He is a political John McEnroe, known for both his mercurial temperament and his tactical brilliance. In the same conversation, he can be wonkish and thoughtful, blunt and profane. (When Emanuel was a teen-ager, he lost half of his right middle finger, after cutting it on a meat slicer—an accident, Obama once joked, that “rendered him practically mute.”) And, like McEnroe, Emanuel seems to employ his volcanic moments for effect, intimidating opponents and referees alike but never quite losing himself in the midst of battle. “I’ve seen Rahm scream at a candidate for office one moment and then quickly send him a cheesecake,” Chris Van Hollen, a Democratic representative from Maryland, and a friend of Emanuel’s, told me.
Emanuel has long since learned to balance his outsized personality, which has made him a subject of intrigue in Washington, with a compulsion for order, which makes him an effective manager. As a child, he attended a Jewish day school in Chicago, where students received written evaluations, instead of A’s and B’s. “My first-grade teacher,” he told me, “said two things that were very interesting: ‘Rahm likes to clean up after cleanup time is over.’ ” He pointed to his desk. “I am fastidious about it. In fact, this is messy today.” The second point was about Emanuel’s “personality being larger than life.” In the first grade.
By any measure, what Obama’s White House has achieved in passing the stimulus bill is historic. The last President to preside over a legislative victory of this magnitude so early in his Administration was Franklin Roosevelt, who on the sixth day of his Presidency persuaded Congress to enact a wholesale restructuring of the banking system. (That, too, is likely in the offing for the Obama team.) Yet praise for Obama was surprisingly grudging. Some liberal Democrats said that Emanuel and his team had made too many concessions to House Republicans, all of whom voted against the legislation. Meanwhile, conservatives complained that Obama had broken his pledge of bipartisan coöperation. Both arguments infuriated Emanuel, who spent hours on the Hill during the negotiations, arranged private meetings with Obama in the Oval Office for the Republican senators Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Arlen Specter, whose votes were critical to the bill’s passage, and personally haggled over the smallest spending details during a crucial evening of bargaining that lasted until the early morning.
“They have never worked the legislative process,” Emanuel said of critics like the Times columnist Paul Krugman, who argued that Obama’s concessions to Senate Republicans—in particular, the tax cuts, which will do little to stimulate the economy—produced a package that wasn’t large enough to respond to the magnitude of the recession. “How many bills has he passed?”
Emanuel has heard such complaints before. As a senior aide in the Clinton White House, he successfully fought a Republican Congress to pass the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), which now provides health care for seven million kids. “I worked children’s health care,” he said. “President Clinton had pediatric care, eye, and dental, inside Medicaid. The Republicans had pediatric care, no eye and dental, outside of Medicaid. The deal Chris Jennings, Bruce Reed, and Rahm Emanuel cut for President Clinton was eye, dental, and pediatric, but the Republican way—outside of Medicaid. At that time, I was eviscerated by the left.” He slammed his fist on the desk, his voice rising. “I had sold out! Today, who are the greatest defenders of kids’ health care? The very people that opposed it when it passed,” Emanuel said. “Back then, you’d have thought I was a whore! How could we do this outside of Medicaid? They warned that it had to be in Medicaid—not that they gave a rat’s ass that the kid had eye or dental care. But, for getting it outside of Medicaid, we got kids’ eye and dental care. O.K.? That was the swap. Now, my view is that Krugman as an economist is not wrong. But in the art of the possible, of the deal, he is wrong. He couldn’t get his legislation.”
The stimulus bill was essentially held hostage to the whims of Collins, Snowe, and Specter, but if Al Franken, the apparent winner of the disputed Minnesota Senate race, had been seated in Washington, and if Ted Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, had been regularly available to vote, the White House would have needed only one Republican to pass the measure. “No disrespect to Paul Krugman,” Emanuel went on, “but has he figured out how to seat the Minnesota senator?” (Franken’s victory is the subject of an ongoing court challenge by his opponent, Norm Coleman, which the national Republican Party has been happy to help finance.) “Write a fucking column on how to seat the son of a bitch. I would be fascinated with that column. O.K.?” Emanuel stood up theatrically and gestured toward his seat with open palms. “Anytime they want, they can have it,” he said of those who are critical of his legislative strategies. “I give them my chair.”
His task has been made no easier by Obama’s desire for bipartisanship, which Emanuel argues the press has misunderstood. “The public wants bipartisanship,” he said. “We just have to try. We don’t have to succeed.” Still, he insisted, they have been succeeding. All Obama’s other major accomplishments to date—winning approval for three hundred and fifty billion dollars in additional funding for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanding S-CHIP, signing an executive order to shutter the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay and a memorandum to increase the fuel efficiency of cars—were supported by at least some Republicans. The G.O.P., Emanuel said, decided that opposing the stimulus “was definitional, and I will make an argument to you, both on political and economic grounds: they will lose. I don’t think the onus is on us. We tried. The story is they failed.”
When Emanuel said this, I noticed that over his left shoulder, on the credenza behind him, was an official-looking name plate, which he said was a birthday present from his two brothers. It read, “Undersecretary for Go Fuck Yourself.”
The office of chief of staff was created by Dwight Eisenhower, who redesigned the working structure of the White House along the hierarchal staff system he had learned as supreme commander of Allied forces in the Second World War. His chief of staff—though he didn’t officially use the title, because Eisenhower worried that “politicians think it sounds too military”—was Sherman Adams, who accrued enormous influence, power, and enemies. Neither John F. Kennedy nor Lyndon Johnson had a chief of staff, and largely managed the White House themselves. Richard Nixon returned to Eisenhower’s system and delegated vast managerial authority to H. R. Haldeman, the Watergate conspirator whose ironfisted management of the White House abetted Nixon’s own self-destructive behavior in office. In reaction, both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter tried to operate without chiefs of staff, but both men reversed course when the flat management structure of their respective White Houses produced staff disarray. Since Carter, every President has acknowledged the need for a strong chief of staff.
Over the years, some clear patterns about what kind of person succeeds in the job have emerged. James Pfiffner, a professor at George Mason University who has written extensively on the history of the office, cites four chiefs of staff as notable failures: Adams, Haldeman, Donald Regan, who was Ronald Reagan’s second chief of staff, and John Sununu, George H. W. Bush’s first chief of staff. “All of them got power-hungry, they alienated members of Congress, they alienated members of their own Administration, they had reputations for a lack of common civility, and they had hostile relations with the press. And each one of them resigned in disgrace and hurt their Presidents,” Pfiffner said. “Being able to be firm and tough without being obnoxious and overbearing is crucial.”
Emanuel’s début as chief of staff featured him on the Hill making deals with lawmakers—politely and with due deference, by all accounts—but a chief of staff’s primary job is to serve as the gatekeeper to the President, controlling the flow of information and people into the Oval Office. Constrict that flow too much and you deprive the President of opposing points of view; increase it too much and you drown him in extraneous detail and force him to arbitrate disputes better settled at a lower level. Emanuel saw both extremes in the Clinton White House. Clinton’s first chief of staff, Thomas (Mack) McLarty, a childhood friend from Arkansas, was known as Mack the Nice, and under his leadership the White House was chaotic. Leon Panetta, who is now Obama’s C.I.A. director and, like Emanuel, was a congressman, took over from McLarty. Arguably, he overcompensated for McLarty’s laxness, limiting access to the President so drastically that Clinton surreptitiously sought counsel outside the channels that Panetta controlled. “The President set up a parallel White House, led by Dick Morris, while Leon was chief of staff,” a former senior Clinton White House official told me. “If you clamp down too tight the principal says, ‘You’re not letting me have access to the people and the information I really want, so I’m just going to go build some other structure.’ ”
Obama’s managerial instincts tend toward a looser operation, with lots of staff and outside input. The fact that he will keep a BlackBerry to stay in touch with friends outside the West Wing fishbowl is one sign of this. (Emanuel grimaced when I mentioned his boss’s devotion to the device.) But early in his Senate career Obama also learned the perils of not having one strong manager in charge. When he arrived in Washington, in 2005, he told one of his senior aides, “My vision of this is having six smart people sitting around the table batting ideas around.” A month and a half later, tensions erupted between Obama’s Chicago staff and his Washington staff, making it difficult for them to agree on his schedule. Obama was frustrated that no single person was able to make decisions. The aide reminded him, “Don’t you remember: ‘six smart people sitting around the table’?” Obama replied, “Oh, that was six weeks ago. I’m not on that now.”
Emanuel’s task will be further complicated by what is a fairly top-heavy White House. David Axelrod, Obama’s longtime political strategist, Valerie Jarrett, a close friend and counsellor, and Pete Rouse, Obama’s Senate chief of staff, are “senior advisers,” a title that in the White House denotes a special place at the top of the hierarchy. Part of Emanuel’s job will be to stitch Obama’s old campaign hands together with powerful new figures on the policy side, such as Summers—“a dominating personality,” according to a senior White House official—and James L. Jones, a retired four-star general and Obama’s national-security adviser. In addition, Obama has created four new policy czars at the White House—for health care, energy, Native American affairs, and urban affairs—making the West Wing a more crowded place. Meanwhile, Vice-President Joseph Biden has been promised a high-level role in decision-making. Joshua Bolten, George W. Bush’s last chief of staff, told me that Emanuel has “the challenge of fitting a lot of large personalities and brains and portfolios into a relatively small space.”
Perhaps Emanuel’s greatest challenge, however, will be making the adjustment from being a prominent elected official to being a staffer. Bolten, who hosted Emanuel and eleven former chiefs of staff for breakfast at the White House in December, said, “One of the interesting bits of advice that emerged from the breakfast was that you probably shouldn’t be a political principal yourself. You need to put aside your own personality and profile and adopt one that serves your boss. I’m not saying you necessarily have to have a low profile, but it can’t really be your own independent profile. It’s got to be the profile your boss wants reflected, and it has to be a profile that does not compete with the rest of the Cabinet.” Emanuel said that he has thought about that advice. “There’s no doubt” that this is an issue, he told me. “There are pluses to who I was and what I was and there are perils to who I was and what I was, and you’ve got to be conscious of them.”
David Axelrod is one of Emanuel’s best friends. (When Emanuel got married, to Amy Rule, Axelrod signed the ketubah, the traditional Jewish marriage contract.) The two men met in 1982, when Emanuel was a spokesman for a Naderite group called the Illinois Public Action Council and Axelrod was a reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Emanuel’s organization had just helped elect Lane Evans as the first Democratic representative from western Illinois in many years, and Emanuel was eager to get Axelrod to write about it. “He was just relentless,” Axelrod told me recently. “Rahm chased me down to the recovery room after my second child was born. He says, ‘What is it, a boy or a girl?’ I said, ‘It’s a boy.’ He said, ‘Mazel tov,’ and then a little pause. Then he says, ‘When do you think you’ll be back at work?’ ”
Emanuel and Axelrod crossed paths again in 1984, when Axelrod left journalism to run Paul Simon’s Illinois Senate campaign and Emanuel worked as a junior fund-raiser and field organizer for Simon. By 1988, Emanuel was a top staffer at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or D.C.C.C. (the same organization that he ran as a congressman seventeen years later). “I did campaigns in ’86 and ’88 for him and with him,” Axelrod said. “Including the famous dead-fish race.”
More than any other story about Emanuel’s tactics—and there are lots of them—the tale of the “dead-fish race” came to define his public persona as a Democratic operative. He and Axelrod were working for David Swarts, a Democratic official from Erie County, New York, running an underfunded campaign for a congressional seat long held by Republicans. “We were rolling the dice on the race, just spending the money we had as it came in to try and get these numbers up,” Axelrod said. Their plan was to take a poll at the end of the contest which they hoped would show a competitive race and then use the results to help raise last-minute funds and overtake their opponent.
“The poll came back a week or two before the end, and it said we were down by seventeen,” Axelrod said. “And that was it.” According to Axelrod, Swarts’s campaign manager later studied the poll’s findings and concluded that the pollster had botched the analysis: the survey showed that Swarts was just five or six points behind. (The pollster says that the error was actually minor and quickly caught.) Axelrod added, “Had we gotten that correct poll then, we would have put our foot to the pedal. But it was too late. So Rahm, being as invested as he was in the thing, expressed himself as only Rahm can.” After the election, Emanuel and his colleagues hired a Massachusetts company called Enough Is Enough, which specialized in “creative revenge,” to send the pollster a box with a dead fish inside. Emanuel laughed mischievously when I asked him about the prank. “We had our choice of animals,” he said.
When Emanuel is in Washington, he stays in the basement of the Capitol Hill home of Representative Rosa DeLauro, of Connecticut, and her husband, the pollster Stanley Greenberg, an old friend. (“It’s part of my workout room,” Greenberg said recently of the accommodations. “He walks out of his bedroom into where I work out.”) Greenberg argues that Emanuel’s antics have been integral to his success. “Understand that the caricature and the mythology have always been helpful,” Greenberg said. “Sending the fish to the pollster that he thought had failed sent a message about how public he can be about his displeasure, and showed that he’s willing to step beyond the normal bounds, that he’s willing to be outrageous and he doesn’t suffer fools. He doesn’t mind bad publicity. It’s part of his cachet, it’s part of why he’s able to be effective.”
Emanuel has succeeded in almost every professional endeavor he has undertaken. In Chicago, in 1989 and 1991, he raised money for the successful mayoral campaigns of Richard M. Daley, and this caught the attention of Bill Clinton’s campaign, which hired him. Emanuel then raised a record amount of money for Clinton, which kept his Presidential campaign from collapsing during the darkest days of the primaries, when he was fighting allegations of adultery and draft-dodging. In the Clinton White House, after a brief setback—he was demoted after clashing with Hillary Clinton—Emanuel rose to become a top adviser to Bill Clinton, securing for himself the small but coveted office next to the President’s private study, the office that Axelrod now occupies. When Emanuel left the Clinton Administration, in 1998, he moved back to Chicago, took a job as an investment banker, and in less than three years earned nearly twenty million dollars. In 2002, he won a congressional seat in the city on his first attempt. Three years later, he took over the D.C.C.C., and, more than anyone else, was responsible for restoring Democrats to power the following year. (Not a single Democratic incumbent lost in the general election.) By the time Obama came calling for a chief of staff, Emanuel was the Democratic Caucus chair, making him fourth in the House leadership, and on a path to becoming Speaker.
Obama settled on Emanuel as early as last August. “It was months before the election when Barack said to me, ‘You know, Rahm would make a great chief of staff,’ ” Axelrod said. “He spent six years in the White House, knows this place inside and out, spent four or five years in Congress, and became a leader in a short period of time. He really understands the legislative process, he’s a friend who the President has known for a long time from Chicago, and whose loyalty is beyond question, and who thinks like a Chicagoan.”
Emanuel did not want the job. A few months before Election Day, Obama sent him an e-mail, with a warning: “Heads up, I’m coming for you.” Emanuel was a key negotiator in moving the TARP legislation through Congress, in October. After the bill cleared Congress, Obama, who supported it, sent Emanuel another e-mail. “I told you we made a great team,” he said. Emanuel wrote back, “I look forward to being your floor leader in the House.”
While Obama was wooing Rahm, Rahm’s older brother, Ezekiel, an oncologist and a bioethicist, served as a sounding board. “I probably spent half an hour every day being screamed at on the telephone by him,” he said. “ ‘I don’t want to do this. Why do I have to do this? Tell me I don’t have to do this.’ All of which said to me he knew he had to do it.” (Ezekiel told me that the rivalry among himself, Rahm, and their third brother, Ariel, a Hollywood agent who is the basis for the Ari Gold character on HBO’s “Entourage,” was so intense that they had to pursue careers in different cities. “We couldn’t possibly be within a thousand miles of each other, because the force fields just wouldn’t let it happen,” Ezekiel said. Rahm is now his boss; he works at the White House as an adviser to the budget director on health policy.)
Over lunch two days before the Inauguration, Emanuel explained to me his decision to give up his congressional seat and return to the White House. We were in a brasserie in the lobby of a Washington hotel, and Emanuel, dressed in a black sweater over a white button-down, was frequently interrupted by people who wanted to wish him well or have their picture taken with him. “The main hesitation was family, because there’s no way you will convince me this is good for my family,” Emanuel, who has three children, ages eleven, ten, and eight, said. “No matter what every White House says—‘We’re going to be great, family-friendly’—well, the only family we’re going to be good for is the First Family. Everybody else is, like, really a distant second, O.K.?”
Then there was the issue of his congressional ambition. In 2005, when Obama first arrived in Washington, he and Emanuel had dinner and discussed their futures. “He knew what I wanted to do, I knew what he wanted to do,” Emanuel told me. “He was going to be President one day, and I was going to run for Speaker. It was not that he was deciding on 2008 but his course was one day he was going to run for President.” For Emanuel, being chief of staff meant abandoning his goal. “I was putting together the pieces of my puzzle for Speaker,” he said. “I’d been to the White House—that was a dream, but I’d been there. Now I was on to another dream and professional goal and career. And so I had to give that up.” He added, “I had my own personal desire of being the first Jewish Speaker. That’s why I took on the D.C.C.C. job, that’s why I ran for Caucus chair, that’s why I stayed involved.”
Emanuel grew up in a political family. His Israeli-born father, Benjamin, was a member of the Irgun, a militant Zionist group from which the modern Likud Party eventually emerged. His mother, Marsha, was a civil-rights activist who was arrested several times. “We were attacked because we were white Jews with African-Americans,” Ezekiel said. When Martin Luther King, Jr., marched in Chicago in 1966, and was pelted with eggs, Marsha and her children marched along with him. Ezekiel told me that he knew Rahm would take the job of chief of staff because of Marsha’s father, Herman Smulivitz, a boxer and a union organizer. It was Herman who instilled in Rahm a commitment to service, and Rahm was particularly close to him.
When I asked Rahm about his grandfather, his eyes welled up with tears. “I’m a little too tired, a little too stressed,” he said. “It’s too emotional about Gramp.” He poured himself a glass of water and took a sip. Earlier, he had explained his decision in pragmatic terms: “If you got into public life to affect policy, and to affect the direction of the country, where could you do that on the most immediate basis? Everybody knows: chief of staff.”
Obama’s decision to hire Emanuel says two things about his Presidency. First, like his decision to make Biden, an expert in foreign policy, his running mate, it shows that he is honest enough about what he doesn’t know to try to fill in the gaps in his own experience. There are people working for Obama who know as much as Emanuel does about the legislative process, and others who know as much as he does about running the White House, but there isn’t anybody who knows as much about both. Obama’s choice also says a great deal about the ethos of his White House. He recently characterized his team as a group of “mechanics,” which suggests an emphasis not on ideology but on details and problem-solving. In the Clinton White House, Emanuel’s specialty was helping to pass legislation that required centrist coalitions, like NAFTA, a crime bill, and welfare reform. “He’s a partisan in the sense that he’s a strong Democrat, but he’s not an ideological Democrat,” Stanley Greenberg said. “He’s not ideologically liberal. He comes out of Chicago politics, which is more transactional.”
During the Senate negotiations, Obama agreed to pare back his tax cut for workers, from five hundred dollars to four hundred dollars. It was Emanuel’s job to sell the decision to House Democrats. “Nancy was opposed to it,” he told me, referring to Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, who asked him why he would put the President’s tax cut on the table. “I said, ‘Because at the end of the day the President believes we have to get this done.’ ” Emanuel thinks that the stimulus bill speaks for itself: “It is the most progressive tax bill in the history of the United States, bar none, by a quotient of two.”
Emanuel laughed as he recounted the final sticking point in the negotiations. It was not, as many people have thought, an argument between the five centrist senators—Ben Nelson, Joe Lieberman, Collins, Snowe, and Specter—and the House but a debate among the centrists themselves. The dispute was over a formula for how Medicaid funds in the bill would be allocated to the states. In the House version of the legislation, fifty per cent of the funds would go to all states and fifty per cent would go to states with high unemployment. In the Senate, where rural interests are more dominant, the formula was 80-20. A deal had been reached between the two chambers to split the difference and make the formula 65-35. “Everybody signed except for Ben Nelson,” Emanuel said. “He wants 72-28, or seventy-two and a half, and he says, ‘I’m not signing this deal.’ Specter says, ‘Well, I am not agreeing with you.’ ” Without Nelson, Collins wasn’t likely to vote for the deal, either.
“Collins and Snowe are kind of like, at this point, looking at their shoes,” Emanuel went on, “because Specter says, ‘Well, why make it seventy-two? What do you mean? We all have it at sixty-five, in the middle.’ ” Emanuel politely declared that the formula would stay at 65-35. He then asked Nelson to step out of the room with him. After a brief conversation in the hallway, they returned, and Nelson agreed to the stimulus package.
Emanuel stood up and removed his tie as he finished the story, making it clear that he was ready to leave for the airport. He seemed more cheerful, knowing that he was that much closer to seeing his family. I asked him what he promised Nelson to persuade him to drop his objections. Emanuel just smiled. “Everything is going to be O.K.,” he said, in a mock-soothing voice. “America is going to be a great place.”
Rahmbo doesn't kiss and tell, so we don't learn how Sen. Nelson came to change his mind.