After President-elect Barack Obama ran a nearly flawless 21-month campaign, Democrats are second-guessing one of his first and most important post-election decisions: Why is he asking Rep. Rahm Emanuel – “Rahmbo,” one of the capital's most in-your-face partisan actors – to be his chief of staff?
A second question has the political networks abuzz: Why would Emanuel, now on a ladder potentially to be speaker of the House someday, take the job?
Emanuel, as a House Democratic leader, already is in a prime position to help Obama. But in the modern White House, the chief of staff is one of the most powerful posts in government, gatekeeper to the president on every issue.
Obama first broached the idea with Emanuel weeks ago, say people familiar with their exchanges. “You'd have my back,” he is said to have told Emanuel.
Emanuel, who turns 49 this month, knows the White House, having been a senior adviser to President Clinton. In a brief career as an investment banker after that, he made millions and became familiar with Wall Street; in the House, he helped negotiate the financial system bailout that Obama inherits.
By all accounts, Emanuel knows Congress like few others; in his second term, in 2006, he engineered House Democrats' victories to regain the majority. The Democrats in turn elected him as their caucus chairman. He was immediately viewed – not least by himself – as a prospective speaker. A centrist Democrat, Emanuel knows policies as well as politics, easily distills complex issues into a simple message and is renowned for always seeing several steps ahead in the legislative process.
But there's the matter of his temperament – or, as Emanuel says, “I swear a lot.” He also yells a lot, and in his sentences his favorite expletive can serve as subject, verb or adjective when he is facing down either recalcitrant Democrats or Republican opponents.
To many Democrats, including some who are close to both men, Obama's choice seems at odds with the “no drama with Obama” atmosphere he enforced at his Chicago campaign headquarters.
Some Democrats say former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, as laid-back as Emanuel is brusque, would be a better fit. Several have privately expressed or relayed reservations to Obama about Emanuel. To one Obama replied, “Rahm's grown a lot.”
Emanuel's supporters say his reputation for a big ego, over-the-line volatility and take-no-prisoners partisanship is overblown and out of date, rooted still in the Clinton years.
And by last weekend, Emanuel had warmed to the job offer enough to contact potential recruits for an Obama administration. Yet on Wednesday, the election results in, he remained undecided, according to friends.