Is Rahm Emanuel–Reportedly Obama’s New Chief of Staff–an Agent of Change?

The Obama administration is already under way. And a new theme begins for the Obama tale: is he bringing real change to Washington?

The day after Barack Obama’s historic and decisive victory, various media outlets are reporting that the president-elect has picked Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) to be his White House chief of staff. Emanuel is one of the more colorful characters in Washington: a sharp-tongued, quick-witted partisan. He was one of the original Clinton warriors–those political operatives who guided Bill Clinton to the White House and then went to work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He put in five years on the front lines of the Clinton wars–longer than most of his comrades–and then left to make millions of dollars in the private sector. He was elected to the US House of Representatives in 2002 and soon became the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Leading the DCCC, Emanuel was a prolific fundraiser and engineered the 2006 election wins that allowed the Democrats to regain control of the House.

A Washington player he is. Mother Jones profiled him and examined his tough-guy ways in 1993, a few months into his stint at the Clinton White House. When Emanuel left the Clinton White House in October 1998–during the Monica Madness–The Washington Post summed up his years there:

In 1993, Emanuel’s brash, punish-your-enemies style aptly reflected a White House in which certitude sometimes outpaced judgment. He lost support internally and, in a move that sources said first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton urged, was fired from his job as political director….

With an imprecise job portfolio, Emanuel took on projects that had the cumulative effect of recasting Clinton with a more centrist image. Some were big, such as helping lead lobbying for the North American Free Trade Agreement. But many Emanuel projects were mocked as small-bore, such as Clinton’s pronouncements on school uniforms and trigger locks for guns….

Colleagues make fun of Emanuel’s penchant for pushing initiatives on to Clinton’s schedule. At the Wednesday [farewell] ceremony, [White House aide Gene] Sperling cracked about a fictitious Emanuel proposal to put trigger locks on water pistols and noted that his friend’s typical policy proposals must cost no money and be related to “two obscure tragedies a decade.”

….While most of his friends in the original Clinton team from 1992 — including Sperling, Stephanopoulos and political advisers James Carville and Paul Begala — are traditional Democrats, Emanuel was a major force prodding Clinton to fashion a “New Democrat” image.

[Erskine] Bowles, who will leave his post [as White House chief of staff] next week, said Emanuel’s greatest skill was putting ideas into action. While the bureaucracy wants to study things for 18 months, Bowles said, Emanuel would insist that a proposal be ready for a presidential announcement in 18 days. “He moves the trash,” said Bowles, using a favorite Southern phrase.

….Emanuel said he has learned to become more politic in his White House years. Even the first lady became a supporter. Acknowledging that he was too brash for his own good early on, he said that “as influence grows, so should humility.”

Emanuel as an agent of change? Maybe not. But maybe an agent of change needs someone who can move the bureaucracy (and the trash) to get change done.


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  • David Corn

    David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief and an on-air analyst for MSNBC. He is the co-author (with Michael Isikoff) of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump. He is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, Showdown, Hubris (with Isikoff), and The Lies of George W. Bush, as well as the e-book, 47 Percent: Uncovering the Romney Video that Rocked the 2012 Election. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter and Facebook.