Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live


Beyond Emanuel: The White House's Next Chapter

President Obama has many factors to weigh as he chooses a replacement for Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.
Charles Dharapak
President Obama has many factors to weigh as he chooses a replacement for Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

When President Obama put together his initial White House staff, choosing the colorful, profane and driven Rahm Emanuel was the most conspicuous sign that he wanted a legislative machine -- a team of hard-nosed political players with the skills to get a big, ambitious agenda passed on Capitol Hill.

Emanuel had been an aide to Bill Clinton and a member of Congress from Illinois before becoming Obama's chief of staff. Now, he's stepping down to explore a bid for mayor of Chicago -- which he's always said would be his dream job -- leaving the president to choose a replacement.

Controversy And Success


Emanuel -- or Rahm, as he is universally known -- described his approach to the job back in March 2009: "You've got to know when to press down on the accelerator when people basically don't want to move or don't want to make a decision. You've got to know when to pull back and let that process kind of develop."

The process took longer and sometimes turned out to be much messier than anyone in the White House imagined, but, as former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta says, Emanuel succeeded.

"Rahm's not an uncontroversial guy, but he is an effective guy," Podesta says. "I think ... when history looks back at this period of time, people will be incredibly impressed [with] what the president was able to do, and a lot of the credit for that goes to Rahm."

In hindsight, Emanuel's warning about the dangers of pushing forward with health care in the teeth of a recession seems prescient. But once the decision was made to go forward with an overhaul, his strategy -- of making deals with the big industry groups early on -- kept the bill from failing.

The Second Chapter


Now the president has to replace Emanuel. Obama's senior adviser and longtime time aide Pete Rouse will fill the post on an interim basis. Then, says Podesta, the president has to think about who would be best for the second chapter of the Obama presidency, when the Obama legislative machine will, of necessity, dial down.

"The game's going to shift from one of powering legislation through the Hill, which [is] what presidents do in their first two years -- it's what Reagan did; it's what Clinton did -- but now it's really all about execution and getting everything he can out of a big, strong and diverse team," Podesta says. "So that's what I'd be looking for, whether that comes from the inside or the outside."

An insider or an outsider -- that's another fundamental question the president has to resolve. Democratic strategist Steve Elmendorf suggests someone from the outside.

"Any campaign team and White House team has to worry about becoming insular. I mean, there's no question that when you get in that building and you go there every day and you work there 18 hours a day, you lose contact with the rest of the world," Elmendorf says.

That's why, he says, it's not necessarily a bad thing to have turnover two years into an administration. "Bringing in some new people and some fresh blood is something they should do," he says.

And that's what Obama might do -- with one caveat.

"I think if you look at him and his history so far, it's likely to be somebody who he's close to, who he knows," Elmendorf says.

The Obama leadership team is famously small and tightly held -- with just a handful of top aides working closely with the president.

Potential Replacements

Insiders who are potential permanent replacements for Emanuel include Rouse; Vice President Biden's chief of staff, Ron Klain; and Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

Outside names include Podesta and former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who was once slated to be the health czar until tax problems derailed his appointment.

Whoever Obama turns to, says former Reagan Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein, it should be someone who is suited for a new era of smaller, or even nonexistent, Democratic majorities in Congress.

"I would think President Obama would want to reach out -- not with the appointment of a Republican but with somebody who, in this polarizing time, recognizes that sometimes polar opposites attract," Duberstein says. "That person has to have the level of wisdom and maturity and stature, not simply to ... be respected by all parts of Obama world, but also to have the respect of the other side of the aisle."

"Stature" is the key word here. Duberstein isn't the only one in Washington who thinks the president needs a chief of staff who can play a role few on the domestic side of the Obama team have filled so far -- as a public surrogate for the president.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit