`Absolute Enforcer’ Emanuel Given Big Role by Obama

Barack Obama once joked at a charity dinner that when Rahm Emanuel severed his middle finger, it almost rendered him mute.

Yesterday, Obama announced that Emanuel, an often-profane, combative Chicago congressman versed in the ways of the White House and Capitol Hill, would have one of the biggest voices in his administration: chief of staff.

It’s a role akin to being the chief operating officer of the nation, the gatekeeper to the Oval Office, a position that also requires the ability to deliver a forceful “no.”

“Rahm doesn’t have an issue with that,” said William Daley, a longtime Democratic powerbroker from Chicago who served as commerce secretary in the Clinton administration and has known Emanuel for 20 years.

Emanuel’s appointment marked the first major staff announcement for the president-elect, who is off to a quick start on his preparations for his transition to office on Jan. 20.

Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden are to meet today with billionaire investor Warren Buffett, former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman William Donaldson, former Treasury Secretary and Citigroup Inc. senior counselor Robert Rubin, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker and other members of his team of economic advisers.


Emanuel will be at his side, and he’s no stranger to the world of high finance.

He left the White House in October 1998, after holding several posts for President Bill Clinton, to work for one of Clinton’s most prolific fundraisers, Bruce Wasserstein.

Emanuel, 48, earned $16.2 million in his three years as a managing director for the firm then known as Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein, according to financial-disclosure reports he filed with Congress. That income put him in the top 3 percent to 5 percent of investment bankers at the time, according to a 2003 story in the Chicago Tribune. Emanuel also served as a director of Freddie Mac, earning $27,280, the disclosures show.

His fees largely stemmed from deals involving utility companies, including one representing Commonwealth Edison Co.’s corporate parent in a merger, the story said. Other commissions came from deals with Democratic donor S. Daniel Abraham, former owner of Slim-Fast Foods, and defense industrialist Bernard Schwartz.

“I brought in business and worked on business that was very successful,” Emanuel told the Tribune.

`Getting Things Done’

Obama praised Emanuel, a wiry tough guy who also dances ballet and whose slender build belies a muscular intensity. Republicans expressed skepticism.

“I announce this appointment first because the chief of staff is central to the ability of a president and administration to accomplish an agenda,” Obama said yesterday in a statement. “And no one I know is better at getting things done than Rahm Emanuel.”

It is how Emanuel gets things done that has sparked numerous battles with Republicans. “This is an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil, and govern from the center,” said Representative John Boehner, the House Republican leader.

If Boehner anticipates conflict, Emanuel, who once sent a Democratic consultant a dead fish, said he didn’t relish a fight.

“I want to say a special word about my Republican colleagues, who serve with dignity, decency and a deep sense of patriotism,” Emanuel said in a statement. “We often disagree, but I respect their motives. Now is a time for unity.”

`Absolute Enforcer’

That’s not to say Emanuel will suddenly transform his kinetic personality.

“The genius about the pick is this good cop you will have in President Obama and the absolute enforcer you will have in Rahm,” said John Lapp, who served as executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, when Emanuel served as chairman and Democrats gained control of the House for the first time in 12 years.

“He knows where the bodies are buried, what people’s wants, desires, needs and vulnerabilities are,” Lapp said. “He does not tolerate mistakes. He does not tolerate human error.”

At the same time, Lapp described Emanuel as a “policy wonk” who “loves President Obama like a brother.”

Difficult Decision

The decision to accept the job, Daley and others said, was a difficult one for Emanuel. He and his wife, Amy Rule, have three young children, and the demands of the job of chief of staff have few limits.

Emanuel consulted numerous friends and advisers, including Jack Moline, a rabbi in Alexandria, Virginia, who did twice- monthly spiritual counseling for Emanuel when he worked in the White House the first time.

“He’s impressed by the awesome nature of what he will be doing,” Moline said. “For him this was not just a meditation on whether this was the job he wanted. It was a question of what it would do to him in the longer term and to his family, longer time.

“The best thing about Rahm is that in spite of how people depict him in his public persona, he is a brilliant and compassionate human being. His tactics attract attention but I have seen him in his private moments, struggling with decisions, and his first priority is his family.”

Independence Fighter

That family also includes his father, Benjamin, a pediatrician, his mother, Marsha, two brothers, Ezekiel, a doctor at the National Institutes of Health, and Ari, a Hollywood agent who inspired the Ari Gold character in HBO’s “Entourage.”

Obama, criticized by Republicans during the campaign for his contacts with Palestinian advocates, named in Emanuel a person with strong family ties to Israel.

Benjamin Emanuel participated in the Irgun, a pre- statehood group seeking independence for Israel. As he was putting up posters to promote the resistance, he was struck on the head by a British officer’s baton, a wound that is still visible today. Benjamin’s brother, Emanuel, was killed, and he changed the family name from Auerbach to Emanuel in his honor.

It was a competitive family. Emanuel’s mother jokingly calls her middle son, “Rahmbo.” When he was 17, Emanuel severed half of his middle finger while working at an Arby’s restaurant. He refused to be treated because he wanted to attend his high school prom. An infection set in and almost killed him. It was at that moment, his mother said, that he became more serious about life, as detailed in the book “The Thumpin”’ by Naftali Bendavid, an account of Emanuel’s role in the 2006 campaign.

Fiercely Loyal

Emanuel, the No. 4 ranking Democrat in the House, has advised Obama throughout his rapid political ascent. Friends and foes alike describe him as fiercely loyal as well as being steeped in policy, particularly economic matters.

In Clinton’s White House, he served as political director and senior adviser. His most important policy accomplishment was helping to persuade Congress to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. He was also an outspoken defender of Clinton during the impeachment proceedings against him.

“He was bred for this job,” said James Carville, who ran Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. “How many chiefs of staff have this kind of experience?”

Daley, the younger brother of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, said Emanuel has the three qualities needed in a successful chief of staff.

`Disciplined and Organized’

“One, he’s very focused, disciplined and organized,” Daley said. “He is very good on policy and he does get the interconnection with policy issues and debates. And third, he’s close to the president-elect.”

Emanuel has matured since his days in the White House, where he was known as an aide whose elbows were sometimes too sharp, into a more nuanced leader, according to Daley.

“The Rahm of 15 years ago is very different from the Rahm of today,” Daley said. “The young Rahm was pretty full of himself.”

Illinois Republican Representative Ray LaHood agreed.

LaHood, who is retiring after seven terms in office, said Emanuel called him the day after he was first elected in 2002 and offered to work with him. The two struck up a friendship and over the last two years organized dinners in Washington among Republican and Democratic lawmakers to try to lower the partisan temperature.

`A True Friend’

“This idea that Rahm is a guy who can’t get along with Republicans is just not true,” LaHood said. “The truth is in politics, you can count your friends on one or two hands, but he’s been a true friend.”

Added LaHood, “The idea that he’s just a trash-talking, hard-core Chicago pol does not reflect who the man really is.”

After his time in the Clinton White House, Emanuel worked in investment banking. In one deal, he said, he earned more than $12 million, which gave him the financial security that enabled him to accelerate his own political career timetable.

He won a tough primary in 2002 and then won election in his heavily Democratic district and has had easy races since.

In 2006, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tapped him to run the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Emanuel threw himself into his work, recruiting candidates, raising money, and relentlessly and loudly following up with advice.

The reward? Democrats won control of the House that they had lost in 1994 and Emanuel’s place in the leadership was solidified.

“Look, this is not for the fainthearted,” he said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune in 2006. “Their job is important to them, and I am seen as a threat to their job security,” he said of the Republicans. “And that’s life. And I didn’t come up here to win a popularity contest.”

Obama picked up on that spirit during the charity roast in 2005, saying that Emanuel was “the first to develop Machiavelli’s `The Prince’ for dance. It was an intriguing piece,” he said. “A lot of kicks below the waist.”

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