Every president staffs the White House his own way. President Obama decided to pack his with powerful figures, like economic adviser Larry Summers, energy czar Carol Browner and retired Marine Gen. James Jones, who is now national security adviser.
Josh Bolten, who was President Bush's last chief of staff, predicted that the toughest challenge for Obama's chief of staff would be fitting all those strong-willed personalities into the small space of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. "I thought he was talking about me," jokes Rahm Emanuel, who is no shrinking violet.
Obama's chief of staff has a larger-than-life personality and a reputation to match. His big office in a sunny corner of the West Wing is neat and uncluttered. There are pictures of his wife and three kids. There's also a brass plaque that reads "Undersecretary For Go (expletive) Yourself." It was a gift from Emanuel's brothers, and a reference to his penchant for profanity.
When Emanuel was a teenager, he lost part of his right middle finger in a meat slicer while working at an Arby's in his native Chicago. Obama has joked that accident rendered Emanuel almost mute: "This whole myth of Rahm being this tough guy, mean, is just not true. At least once a week he spends time teaching profanity to underprivileged children."
No one who's ever worked with Rahm, including the president, calls him "Emanuel." He's one of those political celebrities known by just one name, like Newt or Hillary. He's been called "Rahmbo" for his superaggressive style and sometimes outrageous behavior — there was the dead fish he sent to a pollster, the time he stabbed a steak knife into a table for emphasis, or jumped up and down on a desk while making fundraising calls for Bill Clinton.
Emanuel says there are the stories, apocryphal or accurate — and then there's the real person. "I'm a very driven person on behalf of what I'm trying to get done for the president, or when I was running for Congress or on behalf of the constituents that I represented. I'm driven, but I have a staff, when they work for me, incredibly loyal because of my loyalty to them. And you can't get that if all you do is be a hard-driver."
Leon Panetta, who was President Clinton's chief of staff and Emanuel's boss at the time, shared a memory in an interview before he was nominated to be CIA director:
"When he came into my office in the mornings and he used to be yelling and screaming about some of the problems, I'd say, 'You know, Rahm, you really do strike me as an Italian.' And he said, 'Does that mean I can marry your daughter?' I guess the best way to say it is that he's matured a great deal. He used to be someone who didn't listen very well and now, frankly, he does take the time to listen to people. And that's a strength that you need to have if you're back in the White House."
Emanuel says his time after the Clinton administration — in the private sector and in the House — changed him. "You've got to know when to press down on the accelerator when people basically don't want to move or don't want to make a decision," he says. You gotta know when to pull back and let that process kind of develop. And I tell all the folks, I said, I'm a hard-charger, and if you want, just pull me by the collar when you think I'm going too fast."
More than any other recent chief of staff, Emanuel has thrown himself into the legislative process. He negotiated the final stimulus bill for the White House, cutting deals with the three moderate Republican senators and the House and Senate Democratic leadership. Like his new boss, he was flexible and pragmatic — willing to make a deal, almost any deal, to win.
And his approach impressed even House Republicans. Jim Gerlach represents a swing district in Pennsylvania. He was always on the top 10 list of targets when Emanuel ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Gerlach says Emanuel is a partisan Democrat, but he's not an ideological one — not necessarily even a liberal.
Emanuel didn't get any House Republican votes on the stimulus bill, but he tried, inviting Gerlach and other moderates to meet with him at the White House. "We all appreciated that, and we hope that we have an ongoing relationship now where we can talk about issues and hopefully get good things done in the future," Gerlach says.
But other Republican moderates say Emanuel got distracted last week when he picked a fight with Rush Limbaugh after the conservative talk show host said he wanted the president and his policies to fail. On CBS's Face the Nation, Emanuel said, "It's our desire that the Republicans would work with us and try to be constructive, rather than adopt the philosophy of somebody like Rush Limbaugh, who is praying for failure. I mean, he is the voice and the intellectual force and energy behind the Republican Party."
All of a sudden it was Rahmbo vs. el Rushbo. A food fight that may have been good politics, but perhaps better waged by the White House press secretary or the party chair instead of the chief of staff.
David Axelrod, Obama's senior adviser, said of Emanuel, "I've known him since he was 22 years old, so nothing surprises me about Rahm, least of all when he succeeds." Axelrod, like the rest of the tightknit team of White House aides, admires the chief of staff's effectiveness and has a soft spot for his antics.
Axelrod adds, "He's not as athletic as he was as a young man — he doesn't jump on desks; he counts to 10 more. He's matured as people do over time, but he still gets excited from time to time, and it's fun to watch."
Fun to watch in private. Rahm is always on his best behavior in public.