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Is Emanuel Too Edgy To Be Obama's Chief Of Staff?

Just two days after his election victory, President-elect Barack Obama appointed Rahm Emanuel to be his White House chief of staff.

Emanuel, a U.S. representative from Illinois since 2003, is known as a fiery, ferocious, take-no-prisoners Democrat. And he is a sharp contrast to the inclusive, even-tempered, seldom-ruffled Obama.

"He has had the fastest rise on Capitol Hill of anyone I have ever known," says James Carville, a longtime friend of Emanuel's and a fellow fervent Democrat. The two men worked together in the White House under President Clinton.


"Rahm has legendary energy and smarts — he is schooled in every issue," Carville says.

Emanuel, former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, helped the Democrats take control of the House in 2006.

With this first major post-election appointment, Carville says, Obama "demonstrates that he's serious about trying to find real talent for the White House."

"I consider Rahm to be a friend and colleague," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said in a statement Thursday. "He's tough but fair. Honest, direct, and candid. These qualities will serve President-elect Obama well."

Surprise! Surprise!


For a couple of reasons, the announcement raised the eyebrows of some political observers. First, Emanuel was on his way to being speaker of the House and now must put that quest on hold.

"I was a little surprised. I think he was pretty well positioned in the House. And patience is not one of his virtues," says Naftali Bendavid, author of The Thumpin': How Rahm Emanuel and the Democrats Learned to Be Ruthless and Ended the Republican Revolution.

And second: Emanuel is considered by many to be too abrupt and abrasive, especially in light of Obama's campaign promise of a new partisan-free political style. When the choice was made public on Thursday, the Republican National Committee sent out an e-mail titled "Obama's Broken Promise."

"Obama promised to change the partisan tone in Washington," the e-mail read, "but Emanuel famously earned the title 'Rahmbo' for his hyper-partisanship and bare-knuckle tactics."

From all reports, Emanuel took a while to say yes. Bendavid says that Obama's offer "was apparently a negotiation process."

Looking at the situation from Obama's perspective, Bendavid says, "I thought he would think that Emanuel would be more valuable to him in the House."

But, Bendavid adds, Emanuel "knows the White House. He knows Congress. He can make things work. And probably crack a few heads."

Emanuel, 48, is variously described by people who know him as profane, relentless, petty-minded, high-octane and able to accomplish much of what he sets out to do.

Emanuel The Man

Profiles of Emanuel have not always been kind. "Emanuel's politics were carefully centrist, but his style was extremist," Bendavid wrote in his 2007 book. "Impatient at delay and resistance, he sought to force action through sheer willpower. He browbeat or harangued associates when he wanted something done."

Emanuel has been known to yell at donors, and he sent a dead fish to an out-of-favor pollster, Bendavid wrote. "Part of his right middle finger had been severed when he was a teenager, adding to his aura of toughness — especially when he extended that middle finger, which he did with some regularity."

Born in Chicago, Emanuel was interested in ballet as a young man. One of his brothers, Ezekiel, is a bioethicist, and his other brother, Ari, is a West Coast talent agent. He has a younger sister, Shoshanna. People who know him say he is a gourmand, a wine connoisseur and a triathlete.

Another portrait in Fortune magazine in 2006 quoted Democratic strategist Paul Begala as saying that Emanuel's style was a "cross between a hemorrhoid and a toothache."

The Verdict

Observers agree that the appointment will be viewed either as hypocritical, a contradiction of Obama's campaign rhetoric, or as a shrewd decision to find a can-do pragmatist who can make hard choices.

People who know Emanuel say he demands a lot from his staff and from himself. Carville says the only downside he sees to Emanuel's appointment is for the chief of staff's staff. That's because he works people so hard. "But they love him," Carville says.

"He is a centrist," Bendavid says. "He's not a left-winger. He has a lot of Republican friends."

And those who know him say he has matured over the years. He is the father of three children. And he suffered some political setbacks when he went to work at the Clinton White House in the early 1990s.

He was described by one former colleague who requested anonymity as "somebody with a really sharp edge."

The colleague adds that it's highly possible that Emanuel will play the "bad cop" to Obama's "good cop" in certain situations. "Rahm's the one who will say, 'No We Can't.' "

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