If President Barack Obama keeps pushing long hours on his closest advisers, others may join Larry Summers in falling asleep during news conferences. But don’t expect Rahm Emanuel — the most hyperkinetic of the Type A’s who show up early, hang around late and work weekends — to be among the sleepy-eyed aides.
While Obama’s top economic adviser dozed last month, the White House chief of staff was wide awake, his eyes darting about somewhat nervously as if looking for a little more intel to process for the president. As nearly always seems the case, he was not too far from Obama, delving his hands into yet another issue in what seems to be his limitless portfolio.
Known for a willingness during his days in the House leadership to take on assignments large and small, Emanuel appears not to have slowed a step, seemingly involved in every issue of any importance that comes before the president. Whether the meeting involves high matters of state, tête-à-têtes with foreign leaders, priorities like energy or health care, or haranguing some forlorn credit card executives, Emanuel is on hand.
He’s everywhere. He shows up at parties. He turns up on TV. Like Madonna or Elvis, one need only say “Rahm— and all will know who you’re talking about.
Vice President Joseph Biden said he took the job on the condition he would be the last guy in the room when a policy is decided. And while he does appear frequently with Obama — more so than Dick Cheney did with George W. Bush, at least publicly — it is Emanuel who seems to be in the room not only when a policy is decided, but when it is hatched.
Nowhere is his omnipresence more keenly felt than on Capitol Hill. By all accounts, the chief of staff has maintained his contacts in Congress and works them continuously. And, contrary to his reputation as a foul-mouthed bully, Hill Democrats describe a smooth listener and fixer seeking to make sure the Obama White House eschews the my-way-or-the-highway methods employed by the Bush administration.
He talks with Members, he meets with them, he hears their concerns — he even sweats with them. According to several sources, Emanuel still uses the House gym several times a week.
“He’s the go-to guy on many things if you want to talk to the White House,— said one House Democratic leadership aide. Among those in the House he talks to regularly are Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who succeeded Emanuel as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. His reach also extends well into the Democratic Caucus, of which he was chairman.
He talks to many Democratic Senators as well, but there he appears to be more focused on the leadership. Chats with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) occur at least two to three times a week, according to a Democratic strategist familiar with the conversations.
Congressional aides describe Emanuel’s involvement as sometimes deep into the weeds. With his extensive knowledge of how Congress works, Emanuel can be found on the phone talking detailed legislative strategy.
“He might say, If the Republicans offer X, what are we going to do about it?— said one Senate Democratic aide. “It’s a contrast to [Bush White House Chief of Staff Joshua] Bolten, who would only call about the big things, and only at the point where he was weighing in on behalf of the president.—
Congressional aides say the White House legislative affairs shop, led by Phil Schiliro, appears generally on the same page as the chief of staff and that mixed signals from the right hand and the left are not a problem.
“Phil may come over and say, Rahm’s going to call you about such and such,’— said one Democratic aide.
With his close personal relationships with Members and his obvious access to the president, Emanuel is in a position to call lawmakers who have problems and see what needs to be done to iron the situation out.
Steve Elmendorf, who was chief of staff to then-House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) and who is close to many in the White House, said Emanuel’s deep understanding of the needs of those in the Democratic Caucus will be key to getting votes for health care reform and energy legislation.
Elmendorf said Emanuel’s role is consistent with that of the chiefs of staff Emanuel served during his time in Bill Clinton’s White House. “Gephardt talked to the [White House] chief of staff every day,— Elmendorf said.
Among the issues where Emanuel has played a key role: the House Democratic budget and the supplemental spending bill, where he could be seen working on trouble spots. The House leadership aide said Emanuel played a key role in getting Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) to drop a plan to add language to the supplemental splitting a $35 billion aerial refueling tanker program between Boeing and Northrop Grumman.
But Republicans are not feeling the love — particularly on the House side, where Emanuel is best remembered for seizing control for the Democrats as DCCC chairman.
Some complain that the “outreach— from the White House has led to little of substance but produced some good photo ops.
“At times, we are a little distrustful of him because he’s made it his stock and trade going after Republicans,— said one House GOP leadership aide.
Less clear than his success with Democrats is how well Emanuel is actually managing the White House. Almost every event in the place starts late, a marked contrast to the discipline of the Bush years. Missteps have included the vetting of nominees — Emanuel was said to at least partially have been behind the nomination of Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) to be Commerce secretary — as well as the failure to produce GOP votes for the stimulus bill and Senate Democrats’ denial of money for the closing of the Guantánamo Bay prison.
And a statement by Emanuel on Sunday morning about Obama being ready to forgive the authors of the Bush interrogation memos was rolled back during the week.
On the other hand, the administration has trotted out a remarkable number of policies and proposals in a short time. The White House with Emanuel in charge appears to be successfully juggling two wars and a near meltdown of the economy while planning a Supreme Court nomination and an effort to revamp the nation’s health care system.
Per his reputation, Emanuel does seem to rule at least somewhat by fear. Two White House aides declined to comment about his role, even off the record. Another e-mailed a few carefully sculpted comments:
“He behaves much like any White House chief of staff,— the official said. “He acts as a coordinator, a conductor, and a leader, managing the issues and challenges facing the president, and working to make sure the president’s decisions are implemented.—