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Hotheaded Emanuel may be White House voice of reason

By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; A01

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.

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."

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."

Suffering that sort of opprobrium -- what Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Emanuel's friend of three decades, described as "taking flak" for the president -- hasn't visibly bothered the chief of staff. He has always showed a brash side. As a young operative in Illinois, he sent a dead fish to a pollster. As an aide to Bill Clinton, he stabbed a knife into a table while screaming the names of the president's enemies.

But the Rahm-knows-better-than-the-president notion, increasingly spread by his allies and articulated in a Washington Post column by Dana Milbank last month, is, regardless of its relation to reality, creating more tension for the chief of staff inside the White House and drawing more scrutiny from outside.

Emanuel, ever attuned to the politics of self-preservation, has assumed a lower profile. His on-the-record output has reduced to a trickle. The other day, he made an unusual visit to the movies ("We saw 'Ajami,' " a film about social divisions in Israel, said his friend Joel Johnson, a former Capitol Hill official.) He's taking on help in a new senior adviser, Robert Nabors, currently deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

"Rahm can appear to correct course better than anybody," said one senior administration official. "When the heat is on, he shows a spirit of camaraderie and working well with the team. In the last few days, he's been a little bit more solicitous about opinions on the health-care summit, about inviting people into the conversation about how things get shaped."

Obama's key campaign advisers, even those with whom Emanuel has clashed, are as eager as he is to make the civil war of the Chicago consiglieri story go away.

"Rahm has been a tremendous chief of staff," said Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president. "We have all the good fortune of working for President Obama. We're a good collegial team."

'Ally in the effort'

What makes Emanuel's position so difficult is that his job requires him to bridge the competing interests of the White House and Congress.

"All our members are up for election this year, and the president is not up for election until 2012," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). "Sometimes there are tensions because of the different timetables."

Van Hollen, who is Emanuel's successor as DCCC chairman and is charged with protecting the House majority Emanuel helped win, said: "There has been some frustration with the administration," especially in the slow pace of tackling unemployment. "From my discussions with Rahm, he has been an ally in the effort to get these things moving quickly and understands it's important that there be progress."

Asked about that tension, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said: "I'm sure there were discussions back and forth, and Rahm, being the operational guy in the room, said, 'Look, this is what we can get, let's get this now, we can pare it down, et cetera.' And I'm sure there were those in the room who said, 'Look, we said during the campaign we were going to do this; we need to get the whole ball of wax.' "

Another senior member of the House Democratic caucus put it more bluntly. "I don't think the White House has listened to him enough," said the member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss frustration with the White House. "There is this growing sense in the House that this White House is tone-deaf and doesn't care about 2010, that it is sacrificing members for 2012 and that the president thinks he doesn't need to get engaged, or that he thinks politics don't matter and that he could care less about what is happening on the streets of our districts. That's not Rahm."

One early supporter of Obama, who has known Emanuel for years, did not give the chief of staff a pass. "The House members recruited by Rahm say to me, 'He is supposed to know our needs; how come we are being cut off at the knees on so many issues?' They don't understand why Rahm is not being more aggressive."

Emanuel has maneuvered where possible. He has dispatched Vice President Biden to appear at 25 fundraisers and rallies to assist the "frontline members" of the House, those most in danger of being bounced out of office. Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who negotiated with Emanuel during the shaping of the president's budget, said he helped secure assistance for projects "related to my state," including getting the delayed construction of a dormitory back on track. "Not sexy stuff," he said.

That seemingly small, unsexy stuff is, however, key to Emanuel's strategy of keeping the congressional majorities happy and building up small achievements into a substantial body of legislation.

Early in the administration, Obama signed into law equal-pay legislation and expanded health care for children and credit-card protections. When it came time for the economic stimulus plan, Emanuel -- arguing that "you never want a serious crisis to go to waste" -- was the White House's point man in the Senate. There, too, he valued the plausible over the perfect.

Snowe said he was "responsive" to her interest in removing $100 billion in spending from the stimulus bill. "He understood it operationally and legislatively, what needed to be accomplished, and was very straightforward," she said.

When health-care reform became the administration's focus, Emanuel's public persona was that of a partisan field marshal. But before Obama and his advisers settled on a policy of expansive scope, Emanuel back in August suggested a smaller bill that would be easier to pass, according to another administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.

When the larger measure stalled, Emanuel harangued Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and later argued to Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) to strike the public option from the legislation to expedite passage, the source said. Reid insisted on putting it in.

"One thing that has frustrated Rahm," said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), "is how the Senate works."

As health-care negotiations inched along at the end of last year, Emanuel grew impatient about addressing national joblessness concerns. One Democratic senator who wanted to pivot to unemployment said Emanuel shared his thinking. " 'I understand, I understand. We have to get to jobs,' " the senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations, recalled Emanuel commiserating. In a meeting with the president and chief of staff, the senator stated his case, but Obama decided the priority was seeing health-care reform through.

"It was the president's call," said the senator, who added that Emanuel showed no trace of objection. "A play was called, and he was running the play."

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