Emanuel Could Return To The White House

Democratic officials say President-elect Barack Obama has picked Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel to be his White House chief of staff. If Emanuel accepts, he would return to the White House where he served as a political and policy adviser to President Clinton.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. We're beginning the season when President-elect Barack Obama assembles the team that will help him govern. The choices can make a huge difference. Just consider the influence of some of the advisers who surrounded President Bush. Obama's apparent choice for White House chief of staff is Chicago Congressman Rahm Emanuel, though sources close to both men say it's not yet a done deal. Emanuel is a former adviser to President Clinton and an intense political operator who was sometimes called Rambo. From Chicago, NPR's David Schaper has this profile.

DAVID SCHAPER: About two years ago, Rahm Emanuel found himself in a sticky situation. A close friend in Illinois' congressional delegation, Senator Barack Obama, was gearing up for a run for president. Normally he'd support him, except another close friend, Hillary Clinton, was already in the race. The North Side Chicago congressman joked that when calls seeking his support from both campaigns came into his office, he hid under his desk; a position of neutrality he maintained in an interview with Morning Edition earlier this year.

Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois): I built a bigger desk.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: You're still not endorsing anyone.

Representative EMANUEL: We have two very good candidates, and they're both very good friends of mine. And there's no - not one endorsement from this area. I like both candidates a great deal.

SCHAPER: After staying out of that hard-fought intramural fight for 18 months, it was Emanuel who emerged as one of the peacemakers between the Clinton and Obama camps, helping pull Democrats back together. And he became an important adviser to Obama over the final months of the campaign.

Ms. AVIS LAVELLE (Partner, LaVelle Cousin Issues Management LLC): I can't think of a person who would be better suited to be White House chief of staff for Barack Obama than Rahm Emanuel.

SCHAPER: Chicago-based political consultant Avis LaVelle worked with Emanuel on the campaigns of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, President Clinton, and in the Clinton administration. LaVelle calls Emanuel smart and politically savvy. And she says Emanuel is an effective multitasker who pays close attention to detail, all skills needed in a White House chief of staff.

Ms. LAVELLE: Governing is like drinking from a fire hose, it's all coming at you and it's coming fast. And you really need somebody who's experienced in how to process this and keep things moving.

Dr. WILLIAM GALSTON (Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution): He is the most focused human being I believe I have ever met in my life.

SCHAPER: Bill Galston is a Brookings Institution fellow who worked alongside Emanuel in the White House when both were domestic policy advisers for President Clinton.

Dr. GALSTON: He had the assignment of helping to move NAFTA through the Congress, and that was not an easy sell among Democrats. And I suspect there are many Democrats who would not have voted for it if Rahm had not been so firm in making the administration's case.

SCHAPER: Shepherding the administration's agenda through congress will be an important element of the chief of staff's job, and that can be tricky even with Democratic majorities in both chambers. Critics say Rahm Emanuel can be too fiercely partisan, cutthroat, and ruthless, not only with those against his party, but with some within. As architect of his party's strategy to take back control of the House in 2006, he forced some weaker Democrats out of races in favor of handpicked candidates he felt were stronger.

He complained some in his caucus didn't work hard enough or raise enough money. He ridiculed Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean in a dispute over strategy and resources, and he's prone to shouting viciously and profanely into the phone, even with friends. In an interview last year with NPR, Emanuel made no apologies for his abrasive style.

Representative EMANUEL: I mean, look, I like winning. I think winning is important, especially when your job is to win. And I'm aggressive about fighting for what I believe in and not just to win for the sake of winning.

SCHAPER: Emanuel's tactics don't really mesh with the new style of politics President-elect Obama is promising, but many of those talking up the 48-year-old Rahm Emanuel as the next White House chief of staff say he has mellowed a bit in recent years and has learned from his mistakes. And they add that his personality may provide a perfect balance with that of President-elect Obama and that Emanuel's drive to win will ensure that the new administration can make the change promised in the campaign. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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