Barack Obama's choice of hard-charging Rep. Rahm Emanuel as his White House chief of staff signals that the president-elect will take a pragmatic, results-oriented approach to governing.
The main reason for the selection is effectiveness. "No one I know is better at getting things done," said Obama in announcing the appointment Thursday. For his part, Emanuel said, "I want to do everything I can to help deliver the change America needs."
Obama also plans to name chief campaign strategist David Axelrod as a senior White House adviser and campaign communications director Robert Gibbs as White House press secretary. Both men are big-picture thinkers who were at Obama's side during his two-year presidential campaign but they aren't Washington insiders, as is Emanuel. The common threads are trust and competence. All three are not only close friends of Obama but also proven achievers in the political world.
Many congressional Democrats praised Obama's selection of Emanuel, whose nickname is "Rahmbo," after the combative action hero in the movies. His fans say Emanuel is a tough political operator and exactly the kind of no-nonsense leader that the calm and deliberate Obama needs to push his agenda through Congress and deal with partisan GOP attacks. Emanuel could create a good cop-bad cop dynamic in which Obama dispenses carrots and his chief of staff uses sticks.
Emanuel, 48, is currently a U.S. representative from Chicago and chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. During Bill Clinton's administration, he was a senior White House adviser who placed a heavy emphasis on political strategy and hand-to-hand combat with Clinton's adversaries when necessary. While in the White House, stories of his bare-knuckled, expletive-punctuated style spread like wildfire, including the tale that he once sent an opponent a dead fish as a warning. Emanuel didn't bother to deny many of the stories because he hoped they intimidated his foes.
After his White House years, he returned to Chicago and became an investment banker. In the process, he developed a close friendship with a rising local politician named Barack Obama. At the same time, he cultivated local constituents and activists and won a seat in the House of Representatives in 2002. Since then, he has rapidly climbed the congressional ladder, rising to fourth in the Democratic hierarchy. He gained many admirers when he ran the Democratic congressional campaign that led to his party recapturing a House majority in 2006.
He has told friends that he wanted to eventually become House speaker, but now he has taken a big detour from that path.
For good-government mavens, the fact that Obama chose his chief of staff so quickly was impressive. Political scientists and party chiefs of staff say filling the job is crucial to any chief executive's getting off to a good start. That's because "the chief"—as a president's traffic cop and time manager—is central to everything a president does. And the chief can make it much easier for a newly elected president to choose cabinet officers and other members of his inner circle by serving as, in effect, an informal clearing house.
But Republicans argue that Emanuel is too fierce a partisan, too liberal on policy issues, and too much of a Washington insider to truly understand everyday Americans. House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio called Emanuel "an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil, and govern from the center."
Emanuel has already begun shaping popular culture. He inspired the character Josh Lyman in the TV series "The West Wing." And his equally hard-charging brother Ari, an entertainment-industry leader, was the model for Hollywood agent Ari Gold in the series "Entourage."