Emanuel: Viewed by some as second most powerful man in country
He is arguably the second most powerful man in the country and, just a few days into his tenure, one of the highest-profile chiefs of staff in recent memory. He starred in his own Mad magazine cartoon, won the "Your New Obama Hottie" contest on Gawker.com and has become a paparazzi target around Washington.

The New York Times | January 25, 2009
By Mark Leibovich

 

WASHINGTON Barack Obama was meeting this month with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers when Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, began nervously cracking a knuckle.

Obama turned to complain to Emanuel about his noisy habit.

At which point, Emanuel held the offending knuckle up to Obama's left ear and like an annoying little brother


Rahm Emanuel thumbed his nose at his former House colleagues during the inauguration last week. While acknowledging he can be a showman, friends said Emanuel has calmed considerably over the years.
snapped off a few special cracks.

The episode, relayed by someone familiar with the incident, illustrates some essential truths about Emanuel: He is brash, has a deep comfort level with his new boss and has been ever-present at Obama's side of late, in meetings, on podia and in numerous photographs.

There he was, at Obama's desk in one of the first Oval Office pictures; there he was again, playfully thumbing his nose at his former House colleagues during the inauguration; there he was, accompanying the president to a meeting with congressional leaders Friday.

He is arguably the second most powerful man in the country and, just a few days into his tenure, one of the highest-profile chiefs of staff in recent memory. He starred in his own Mad magazine cartoon, won the "Your New Obama Hottie" contest on Gawker.com and has become a paparazzi target around Washington.

In recent months, he played a critical role in the selection and courtship of nearly every Cabinet member and key White House staff member.

Renowned as a fierce partisan, he has been an ardent ambassador to Republicans, including Obama's defeated rival, Sen. John McCain. He has exerted influence on countless decisions; in meetings, administration officials said, Obama often allows him to speak first and last.

"You can see how he listens and reacts to Rahm," said Ron Klain, the chief of staff to Vice President Joseph Biden. "You can see that his opinion is being shaped."

One reason Emanuel, 49, has drawn so much attention is that he is seems to be in a recalibration mode.

How will the feisty, bombastic and at times impulsive former congressman blend with the cool, collegial and deliberate culture of Obama World, one trying to foster bipartisanship?

This is someone who once wrote in Campaign and Elections magazine that "the untainted Republican has not yet been invented" and who two years ago according to a book about Emanuel ("The Thumpin' " by Naftali Bendavid) announced to his staff that Republicans are "bad people who deserve a two-by-four upside their heads."

Emulating Obama

It is clear to friends and colleagues that Emanuel is trying to rein himself in, lower his voice, cut down on his use of profanity.

"As chief of staff, you take on the aura and image and, in some instance, the political values of the person you work for," said the former congressman Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican who is now secretary of transportation. "I think he's beginning to morph himself into the Obama image."

Emanuel acknowledged in an interview that stereotypes of him as a relentless hothead had some factual basis. But it is an exaggerated or outdated picture, he said.

"I'm not yelling at people; I'm not jumping on tables," he said. "That's a campaign. Being the chief of staff of a government is different. You have different tools in your toolbox."

Still, his high profile and temperament are at odds with that of some past White House chiefs of staff: They were often low-key types who put the "staff" part of their job titles before "chief" as Andrew Card, the longtime chief of staff to former President George W. Bush, suggested to Emanuel last month.

Emanuel, who had hopes of becoming the next Speaker of the House, has stepped into a job characterized by short tenures just less than 2 ½ years, on average high burnout rates and the need to subjugate personal ambitions to the service of the president.

He is not accustomed to fading discreetly into the background. As a staff member in the Clinton White House, a three-term House member from Chicago and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he was viewed by many as a consummate purveyor of a crass, kneecapping brand of politics.

Obama acknowledged as much at a 2005 roast for Emanuel, a former ballet dancer, during which Obama credited him with being "the first to adopt Machiavelli's 'The Prince' for dance" (a number that included "a lot of kicks below the waist").

When Emanuel lost part of his middle finger while cutting meat at an Arby's as a teenager, Obama joked, the accident "rendered him practically mute."

The video of that roast has become a recent sensation on the Internet and buttressed a view among some Republicans that Emanuel's appointment was, in the words of the House minority leader, Rep. John Boehner, "an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil."

While acknowledging Emanuel can be a showman, friends said he has calmed considerably over the years.

"He's more temperate now," said David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser and longtime Emanuel friend who dismissed much of his flamboyant reputation as "pure myth." He added, "A lot of it is a reputation he earned as a younger guy."

Adapting to the culture

Emanuel sat in his corner office Friday afternoon, sick with a cold, baggy-eyed and looking tired. "Everyone keeps saying, 'Are you having fun?' " he said. "Fun is not the first adjective that comes to mind."

He woke as usual at 5 a.m., swam a mile at the Y, read papers and was in the office at 7 for the senior staff meeting at 7:30. There was a meeting in the Situation Room about Afghanistan; a leadership meeting; a conversation with the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, D-Nev.; a meeting with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; budget meetings; several conversations with the president.

Emanuel, in the interview, denied he is reinventing himself for his new job. But he is mindful, he said, that he must fit into a culture that was forged over two years on a campaign, "a group that was part of a journey together."

Obama had settled on his fellow Chicagoan to be his chief of staff well before he was elected. He was drawn to Emanuel's experience in the White House and Congress and called him "the whole package" of political acumen, policy chops and pragmatism. He is also a skilled compromiser. "He knows there is a time in this business to drop the switchblades and make a deal," said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla.

Emanuel initially resisted taking the job. But he came around after Obama kept insisting, saying these were momentous times and the tasks he faced required Emanuel's help. The then-president-elect also assured Emanuel the position would be the functional equivalent of "a No. 2" or "right-hand man," according to a person familiar with their exchanges.

Since taking the job, Emanuel has spent endless hours reaching out to lawmakers. Reid gave out Emanuel's personal cellphone number with Emanuel's blessing at a caucus meeting of about 40 Senate Democrats this month. ("He seems to speak to every senator every day," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y.)

He has been equally solicitous of Republicans in Congress, who also have been given access to Emanuel's private contact information.

On days he does not swim, he works out and conducts business at the House gym. In a recent encounter there with Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., Emanuel secured his support for Leon Panetta to become director of the CIA.

Emanuel has endured, or caused, some early distractions: his conversations with Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich about Obama's then-vacant Senate seat; his failure to alert Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to Panetta's appointment.

He also has served as the administration's chief headhunter. When the Office of Management and Budget director, Peter Orszag, had doubts about taking the job, Emanuel went into his default mode: jackhammering away, tracking him down in Hong Kong. "You can't sit on the sidelines; you've got to come inside," Emanuel told him.

Asked if "relentless" would be a fair characterization of Emanuel's recruitment method, Orszag said: "He's Rahm. Come on."

The selection of LaHood demonstrates Emanuel's sway with Obama. After Emanuel sounded out LaHood about his interest in joining the administration, he was summoned to a meeting in Chicago with the president-elect.

The interview lasted 30 minutes, just Obama and LaHood. "Look, Rahm Emanuel loves you," Obama told LaHood as he prepared to leave. "He is really pressing me and pushing me. And it's not that I don't want to do it, but ... "

A few days later, LaHood was picked to be secretary of transportation.

At a White House gathering with Obama and a bipartisan team of lawmakers Friday, the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, D-Md., joked that Emanuel was too busy to talk to him, so he called the president instead. Obama said he was always happy to take calls for his chief of staff, a reference to an incident a few weeks ago when Hoyer called Emanuel, who claimed he was too busy to talk and handed the phone to Obama.

In meetings, it is not uncommon for Obama and Emanuel to banter. One White House official recalls an exchange last week in which Obama said something to the effect of, "Well, I was going to do that, but I didn't want Rahm to mope for a half-hour."