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Inside the White House

Hotheaded Emanuel may be White House voice of reason

Some Democrats are blaming the president for not listening more to his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
Some Democrats are blaming the president for not listening more to his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel. (Bill O'leary/the Washington Post)

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By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rahm Emanuel is officially a Washington caricature. He's the town's resident leviathan, a bullying, bruising White House chief of staff who is a prime target for the failings of the Obama administration.

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But a contrarian narrative is emerging: Emanuel is a force of political reason within the White House and could have helped the administration avoid its current bind if the president had heeded his advice on some of the most sensitive subjects of the year: health-care reform, jobs and trying alleged terrorists in civilian courts.

It is a view propounded by lawmakers and early supporters of President Obama who are frustrated because they think the administration has gone for the perfect at the expense of the plausible. They believe Emanuel, the town's leading purveyor of four-letter words, a former Israeli army volunteer and a product of a famously argumentative family, was not aggressive enough in trying to persuade a singularly self-assured president and a coterie of true-believer advisers that "change you can believe in" is best pursued through accomplishments you can pass.

By all accounts, Obama selected Emanuel for his experience in the Clinton White House, his long relationships with the media and Democratic donors, and his well-established -- and well-earned -- reputation as a political enforcer, all of which neatly counterbalanced Obama's detached, professorial manner. A president who would need the deft navigation of Congress to pass his ambitious legislation turned to the Illinois congressman and former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee because he possessed a unique understanding of the legislative mind.

The pairing made sense, but things haven't worked out as expected. And in the search for what has gone wrong, influential Democrats are -- in unusually frank terms -- blaming Obama and his closest campaign aides for not listening to Emanuel. And this puts the 50-year-old chief of staff in a very uncomfortable position.

Listening to Emanuel would serve "all our overall goals," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). "I think that Rahm's considerable legislative experience translates into advice that the president should heed."

Instead, Obama went for the historically far-reaching, but more legislatively difficult, achievements that he and his campaign-forged inner circle believe they were sent to Washington to deliver.

'Gut instincts'

In December 2008, Obama, Emanuel and Republican Sens. John McCain (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) met in Obama's transition headquarters in Chicago to discuss detainee policy. According to Graham, Obama turned to him at one point and said, " 'I'm going to need your help closing Guantanamo Bay. . . . I want you and Rahm to start talking.' " They did, and as the discussions progressed, Emanuel grew wary that closing the U.S. military prison in Cuba was possible without opening a slew of other politically sensitive national security problems " 'This stuff is like flypaper,' " Graham recalled Emanuel saying. " 'It will stick to you.' "

Graham said Emanuel was well aware that his and any other Republican support for closing Guantanamo Bay hinged on keeping alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed out of civilian court.

According to a person familiar with the conversations, who discussed the confidential deliberation on the condition of anonymity, Emanuel made his case to Obama, articulating the political dangers of a civilian trial to congressional Democrats. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. presented a counterargument rooted in principle, for civilian trials.

David Axelrod, senior adviser to Obama, supported Holder, the source said. The president agreed that letting the Justice Department take the lead was the right thing to do.

"Axelrod has a strong view of the historic character Obama is supposed to be," said an early Obama supporter who is close to the president and spoke on the condition of anonymity to give a frank assessment of frustration with the White House. The source blamed Obama's charmed political life for creating a self-confidence and trust in principle that led to an "indifference to doing the small, marginal things a White House could do to mitigate the problems on the Hill. Rahm knows the geography better."


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