Rahm Emanuel will bring discipline to the White House. And lots of profanity.

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Nov. 6 2008 6:18 PM

Obama's Muscle

Rahm Emanuel will bring discipline to the White House. And lots of profanity.

Rahm Emanuel. Click image to expand.
Rahm Emanuel

Rahm Emanuel's first task upon becoming Barack Obama's chief of staff will be to track down and fire whoever the fuck leaked word that he was offered the job. Even if that means he has to fire himself.

It wasn't a promising start for the president-elect's transition team. Job offers are supposed to happen behind the scenes. But Obama's courtship of Emanuel was made public nearly a week before Election Day. It's unclear who leaked the news, but Emanuel, not known for his reticence, had been talking to reporters even before the latest wave of speculation. Luckily for Obama, Emanuel accepted—but only after days of what looked like dallying. (Emanuel told a TV station he needed to consider his family, which would have to move from Chicago to D.C.; he would also have to shelve ambitions to become speaker of the House.) Maybe he just didn't want to jinx Obama's victory. Regardless, the impression was that Emanuel wasn't sure he wanted the job.

Whatever his reservations, Emanuel fits the mold of the ruthlessly efficient underlings Obama tends to hire. (Without David Plouffe's intensity, Obama would never be able to remain so stoic.) He's also opinionated. In interviews and debates and even in his books, Obama comes off as the Vishnu of decision-making—on the one hand, on the other hand, on the other hand, etc. Emanuel is unlikely to take "maybe" for an answer. And while the cantankerous former ballet dancer is known best for engineering the Democratic takeover of Congress in 2006, he knows more than fundraising. He's also a shameless wonk who co-authored a blueprint for future Democratic administrations. And in the three years before his congressional run, Emanuel made $16 million on Wall Street (something the RNC will be delighted to tell you more about).

Also, as a veteran of the Clinton administration, Emanuel knows what not to do. During his tense first 100 days, President Bill Clinton was poorly served by his well-intentioned but ineffective chief of staff, Mack McLarty, whose nickname was "Mack the Nice" and who often tried to smile his way to compromise. Emanuel's nickname is "Rahmbo," and he is known for mowing down his opponents. Coming out of Chicago, both he and Obama know the value of muscle.

Of course, steamrolling doesn't win you friends. But making friends isn't Emanuel's job. The chief of staff is tasked with making sure the trains run on time. Taskmaster is Emanuel's middle name. (Imagine Ari Gold—the Entourage character based on Rahm's brother—with an even fouler mouth and a weakness for polls.) He must also frame policy questions in a way that helps the president make decisions. Emanuel knows policy: During the Clinton years, he helped lead (successful) efforts to pass NAFTA and the administration's (less successful) efforts on universal health care. Plus, it's the most demanding job around, and Emanuel is known for sleepless nights and dervishlike energy.

Emanuel's appointment is good for the press, too. (Like you care. But you should!) While Obama got glowing press coverage during the campaign, he also ticked off journalists by limiting access. Emanuel knows the value of press access and is skilled at working the refs. In an Obama administration, with which the media will quickly fall out of love, public relations will be key.

Most important, though, Emanuel knows Congress. McCain spent his final days warning about the perils of undivided government. But undivided government is powerless if it can't bridge divides within its own party. (Just ask Clinton, whose stance on gays in the military faced stiff opposition among Democrats.) Emanuel will serve as an unofficial liaison between Obama and Congress. After all, he got several of them their jobs. Campaign promises like renegotiating NAFTA and taxing windfall profits will likely require serious diplomacy. Handling the results of the bailout—which many congressional Democrats opposed—will be its own mess.

For these sorts of things, Emanuel is well-equipped. It helps, too, that he's no liberal weenie. Emanuel is a classic DLC New Democrat centrist: for fiscal restraint, against punishing businesses. For those who still think Obama is the most liberal member of the Senate (a crock), Emanuel's presence may provide comfort.

Does that mean he's perfectly suited? No. The Republican Party already released an oppo dump on Emanuel, describing him as "hyperpartisan" hack with a penchant for "bare-knuckle tactics" who also happens to be in the pocket of Wall Street. It helpfully points reporters to several anecdotes about his famous temper, which makes John McCain's look mild. (Emanuel once sent a dead fish to an unlucky pollster. Another time, he mimed stabbing his political enemies with a steak knife.)

At the same time, expect some tensions in the West Wing. Emanuel withheld his endorsement of Obama for months—he was hiding under the table, in his words—until Obama's victory was clear. Meanwhile, Emanuel makes no secret of his distaste for Howard Dean and his "50 State Strategy"—an approach that dovetailed perfectly with Obama's wide-net campaign. And Emanuel's partisanship—after winning back the House in 2006, he recommended that Republicans "go fuck themselves"—could undercut Obama's promises to reach across the aisle.

But whatever else it says about the Obama administration, Emanuel's appointment suggests that it will be just as tightly run as the Obama campaign. Discipline is the quality that carried Obama to victory over sloppier opponents, and it's a quality sorely missed in many past Democratic administrations. With expectations for Obama as high as they are, he could do worse than having a human cudgel at his side.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.