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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)

Emanuel and Axelrod declined to comment for this article.

"During this whole civilian-trial debate, Rahm's gut instincts knew that taking KSM to New York for civilian trials was going to be a misstep," Graham said. "He has a better ear for domestic politics on this issue than anybody in the administration, quite frankly."

With the Justice Department in charge, Emanuel tried to keep tabs on the process through Graham. "He'd say: 'How's it going? Did you tell them they were going to lose you?' And in terms a sailor could understand."

One administration official close to Emanuel did not dispute that Obama had overruled Emanuel on some key policy issues. "It's not germane what the discussion was beforehand, what his idea was, because once a decision is made, he puts himself whole-hog behind it," the official said of Emanuel. "It would be difficult for people to discern what his [original] position was."

'Taking flak'

Emanuel's allies say there is no such thing as Rahm at rest. According to almost everyone who has ever worked with him, he has an insatiable need to be in the mix, and he is deeply concerned with the news of the day. His office is the White House nerve center. "In order to get a final decision, everything needs to go through Rahm's office," said a former administration official who thinks Emanuel should delegate more.

Every morning, Emanuel leads a 7:30 meeting with about 10 senior administration aides, pushing through the president's priorities, all listed on index cards embossed with the title "Chief of Staff." Throughout the day, one senior administration official said, Emanuel might call six times to determine whether he can cross off an item. If not, it is on the list the next day.

The official said Emanuel surveys colleagues' opinions "more than people think." Emanuel's initial reaction to criticism is likely to be slamming down the phone. But usually, he calls back after a few minutes, the official said, and says, " 'Okay, let's talk.' "

His weighing in on a mind-boggling swath of governmental and political activity adds to his outsize image as chief of staff of everything. As a result, he can be blamed for almost everything, especially as health-care legislation became stuck, the president's approval ratings dipped and widespread angst about the economy fueled a GOP resurgence.

"When the going gets rough, the chiefs of staff are always on the firing line," Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) said last week.

Emanuel's aversion to distractions from the president's agenda has caused conflict, and disappointment, on the Hill.

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who wrote Obama a letter of support for Emanuel's appointment, now says it was "a mistake."

"For Rahm, power and preservation of power is always the number one priority," Gutierrez said. He said Emanuel corroded Obama's commitment to immigration reform, and he gleefully compared the renewed scrutiny on Emanuel, and the popular Washington parlor game of when he'd return to pursue other opportunities in Chicago, to "vultures circling."

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