On Thursday, November 6, Barack Obama gave one of the highest positions in his upcoming administration to a man whose nickname is "Rahmbo." Media coverage of Rahm Emanuel's appointment as future White House chief of staff is replete with sensationalist gems. He once sent a rotting fish to a pollster who had angered him. While fundraising aggressively for Richard Daley, he hung up on donors when he felt they were pledging too little. He performed a satirical version of the famous "How do I love thee" sonnet to show Republicans' love for lobbyists. The night after Bill Clinton's election in 1992, he punctuated a list of the President's enemies by stabbing the table with a steak knife and yelling, "Dead!...Dead!...Dead!" And those examples are just the ones that retain a shred of political relevance; rahmfacts.com collects similarly outrageous tidbits and declares them "as awesome as Chuck Norris facts--except 100% true!"
Such fascination recalls the media's obsessive reporting of inane Sarah Palin trivia as well as some recent Obama idol worship. In Emanuel's case especially, there is a real danger of these colorful anecdotes overshadowing people's understanding of his appointment's actual significance. As chief of staff, he will occupy the second highest position in the Executive Office of the President, with the potential to be one of the most powerful people in Washington.
Notably, Emanuel's new job is a far cry from the more public, outspoken capacities of his past. At 32, he was a leading fundraiser for Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, staying on as a senior advisor for six years before going into investment banking. In 2002 he ran for Congress, and 2006, of course, brought an Emanuel-orchestrated House majority for the Democrats. Many attribute the historic turnaround to his ambitious and unrelenting tactics: he micromanages candidates, fundraises endlessly, woos the media and opportunistically seizes advantages. As Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, for instance, he disagreed vehemently with DNC chairman Howard Dean's long-term 50-state plan for increasing Democrats' numbers in Congress; Emanuel pushed instead for a focus on specific contested districts. Friction escalated between the two as each held his ground stubbornly and vocally. At one point Emanuel cited 1994's successful Republican precedent for demanding higher funds for Congressional committees, a fact that he embroidered significantly for the sake of persuasion. In the end, a tense compromise did grant Emanuel more money, and Democrats did win enough seats for a House majority. To many, his questionable tactics seemed justified by their ends. But his fractious reputation can seem at odds with Obama's call for unity and a new, more respectful brand of politics.
Looking beyond the surface differences, however, Emanuel may be operating in a mindset surprisingly close to Obama's. In 2005, he articulated his hopes for Democrats to retake the House by explaining that "these guys [the Republicans] represent the status quo, and we are change," a sentiment that became the refrain of Obama's presidential campaign. And even in the midst of heated contention between himself and Dean, Emanuel, known for brazen self-promotion, said, "I'm not going to be on his holiday mailing list, and he's not going to be on my holiday mailing list...But this isn't about him or me." Emanuel is capable of transcending petty interparty politics in order to work towards a larger goal, contrary to what some critics might attest. Hyperbolic tendencies aside, he seems to know how to prioritize and when to let things go. After reaching a compromise with Dean, Emanuel told the press, "It's not everything I want, but I don't have any time to waste anymore, and I'm not waiting for Godot. I've got to get going."
Emanuel's impatience and notorious brashness may not meld well with his new position, however; as chief of staff, he will oversee White House staff, manage the President's schedule and possibly serve in an advisory capacity. Brown University political science professor Wendy Schiller told the Independent that "his role should not be public; he is not supposed to be a spokesperson for the president." She stressed that Emanuel will face the challenge of balancing his position's demands with his outspoken personality: "Will he be able to do this kind of job [if] he's not externally advancing an agenda?"
He certainly has a reputation for aggressively producing results. Rolling Stone once described Emanuel as "an attack dog straining at the leash." But beyond the details of Emanuel's personal and political history are the larger implications of the appointment itself. People should be asking different questions, said Schiller: "Why was this Obama's first announcement? What does that signal about Obama's administration?" She continued: "One thing it might suggest is that Obama wants to focus on larger issues, like the economy, and not spend too much time on the nitty gritty like the staffing of the White House... It shows that he trusts Rahm Emanuel to make those kinds of decisions."
Not everyone is so trusting. In Obama's election victory speech earlier this month, his voice echoed across Grant Park with a typically inspiring sound bite: "I will listen to you," he boomed, "especially when we disagree." Taking that promise to heart, some critics point out that Emanuel is in many ways a partisan choice, known for enforcing party loyalty but less for bridging the left-right divide. Yet in terms of actual political views, "Rahmbo" is not as radical as his nickname might suggest. He is a centrist Democrat, advocating a socially liberal agenda but holding more moderate views on domestic policy. In fact, the relatively hawkish Emanuel supported the Iraq war that Obama so vehemently opposed. Even Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has praised the chief of staff pick, calling him "tough but fair." Particularly concerned about Emanuel's toughness and fairness, however, are US pro-Palestinian groups; in light of Emanuel's Israeli heritage, they worry that he brings an untempered pro-Israel agenda to the White House.
While plenty are wondering how Emanuel will fare in his new position, the general feeling is one of cautious optimism, highlighting the positive parts of his past in addition to the more divisive ones. This is a man who set aside his ambitions to become Speaker of the House in order to join a fellow Chicagoan in the White House. Both he and Obama have built their careers on getting things done. And, as the President-elect said in a recent statement, "No one I know is better at getting things done than Rahm Emanuel." To use Emanuel's own classic wording (which, according to the blog Politico, his Washington peers term "Rahmbonics") he has a knack for kicking a field goal in the ninth inning.
TESS O'BRIEN B'10 sends rotting fish to all her enemies.