Always A Contender, Rahm Emanuel Leaves
SCOTT SIMON, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
In what President Obama referred to yesterday as the least suspenseful announcement of all time, President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, is leaving to run for mayor of Chicago. As the president said yesterday, he's begun and ended every work day of his presidency with Rahm Emanuel. And as NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, Mr. Emanuel was critical to the president's legislative achievements.
ANDREA SEABROOK: Very partisan and very productive. That describes Rahm Emanuel, and it describes the last two years in Washington.
When he went to the White House to be chief of staff, then-Congressman Emanuel left one of the most powerful positions in politics. He was head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. From that post and before, Emanuel spent years grooming candidates and advising campaigns, race by race, building a huge majority for House Democrats. Going to the White House would allow him to use that majority to pass sweeping reforms.
HENRY WAXMAN: Rahm very much wanted the president to be able to accomplish legislative goals.
SEABROOK: Congressman Henry Waxman chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee and worked closely with Emanuel on the health care fight. Waxman says it would never have passed without Emanuel, but that didn't always make him popular.
WAXMAN: Sometimes I thought he was so interested in the accomplishment that he didn't care as much as he should have in getting the most we could get. And so some of us had to - while he pushed on us, we had to push back.
SEABROOK: The tone was set early in the Obama presidency. Emanuel brokered a deal with lawmakers on the stimulus package, a deal that included big tax cuts that progressives like Waxman didn't like. But, Emanuel told them, take it or leave it. It's what he could get through the Senate.
WAXMAN: And we eventually had to acquiesce in the reality. So it was not pleasant for us to hear from him what we didn't want to hear, but it was the message he had to deliver and it was the right message at the time.
SEABROOK: Republicans too say Emanuel set the administration's tone on Capitol Hill. They have grudging respect for his political skills, says Michigan's Thaddeus McCotter. Some Republicans even study how Emmanuel did his job, building the Democratic majority, says McCotter.
THADDEUS MCCOTTER: I think that unfortunately some of the skills that were required to doing that job, in terms of being able to draw distinctions between the parties, were very difficult to get rid of when you went into a position where it was about trying to build coalitions to pass legislation.
SEABROOK: All those hard, polarized votes in the House - from the stimulus to health care to unemployment to pay parity for women - didn't have to go that way, says McCotter. Emmanuel could have negotiated more with Republicans, but chose not to. McCotter thinks that lead the White House too far to the left of public opinion.
MCCOTTER: They may have planted the potential seeds for the downfall of the majority in the House and potentially the Senate.
SEABROOK: Think of it what you may, says Emanuel's former staffer, Sarah Feinberg - he got things done.
SARAH FEINBERG: Some people say that gifted athletes have the ability to sort of see the entire field at once.
SEABROOK: He's like that, says Feinberg, but with politics.
FEINBERG: He has a very good sense of what the administration is trying to accomplish, what can get through the Democratic majority, what Republicans will be able to live with, you know, what will be one rock too heavy for the boat.
SEABROOK: Realism, pragmatism, whatever you call it, it's coupled with a personality the size of Illinois. Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky says she's known Emmanuel since he was a 22-year-old college grad, raising money for a political organization.
JAN SCHAKOWSKY: And he would talk to the highest level people, in the highest level of government and business and academia, by the first name immediately. And I saw him take a university president's face, put both hands on his cheeks and kiss him on the mouth. And the guy was like: Oh, Rahm, it's Rahm.
SEABROOK: Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.