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A Different Kind of White House

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 6, 2008; 1:02 PM

In selecting Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff, President-elect Barack Obama is telegraphing that he intends his White House to operate very differently from President Bush's.

For one, Obama's decision to fill that job first indicates its return to its historical significance. In most recent White Houses, the chief of staff has essentially been a deputy president -- managing the staff, setting priorities, and putting his stamp on the presidency in any number of other ways. By contrast, during most of the Bush era, political guru Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney loomed much larger than the chief of staff ever did.

Bush's first chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., was popular with his staff and oversaw the most leak-proof, on-time, on-message White House in history. But he was not a big influence on Bush. He was more like Bush's nanny.

Card spent many hours of his legendarily long work days aggressively monitoring and limiting the information flow to the president. "The president has to have time to eat, sleep and be merry, or he'll make angry, grumpy decisions," Card said in a 2004 radio interview.

Bush sacrificed Card in March 2006, in response to the growing complaints after Hurricane Katrina about the administration's incompetence. And Card's replacement, Joshua Bolten, by most accounts, has been much more assertive with Bush. But he remains mostly a technocrat, rather than a political player in his own right.

In Emanuel, Obama would be putting a force of nature at his side -- a man who, for better and for worse, has a reputation as being one of the most aggressive political figures in Washington.

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times that Emanuel "earned the nickname Rahmbo for his determination and take-no-prisoners approach -- an advantage when trying to bring a thorny issue to resolution, but a style that can be off-putting to those accustomed to gentility."

Naftali Bendavid writes in the Chicago Tribune that Emanuel "is best known as something of a Democratic political assassin. From his days as a top aide to President Bill Clinton to his recent role leading the Democrats to a House majority, Emanuel has relentlessly attacked his foes and gone ruthlessly after anyone who stood in his way. . . .

"Emanuel earned a reputation for a colorful intensity unusual even in the hard-hitting world of politics. His profanity is legendary and seems designed in part to throw his interlocutors off-balance."

That said, Bendavid also notes that "a different Emanuel has emerged in recent years, one who has forged friendships with Republicans and shown an ability to work with them on occasion."

John McCormick, Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons write in the Chicago Tribune: "In terms of management and interpersonal style, Emanuel is strikingly different from Obama. He is dramatic and partisan, with an affinity for the kind of hardball politics from which Obama shies away. That may be part of the attraction, some say.

"'Ultimately, Barack would rather be the good cop than the bad cop,' said the Obama insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 'He knows what his strengths and weaknesses are. He wants Rahm in there to play that role.'


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