Obama Goes With Mr. Aggression

The basic logic behind Barack Obama’s first major decision as president-elect, his selection of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, makes sense.

Emanuel is a sharp and aggressive strategic thinker with an instinctive grasp of the finer points of backroom dealing and deep knowledge of who’s who and what’s what in the world of Washington. He can also be brutally frank and will have no reservations about providing candid assessments and challenging Obama’s thinking during any decision-making process. The idea, in short, is that Emanuel is a no-nonsense guy knows how to get things done in Washington – a pretty good combination for a chief of staff.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean Obama is making a wise choice. In vesting Emanuel with such authority – he’ll essentially run the White House and serve as the gatekeeper to the president – he is also assuming some very significant risks.

First, Emanuel’s hyper-aggression tends to create needless divisions and to turn would-be allies into sworn enemies.

A well-known anecdote from late 1992 is again making the rounds this week, one that has Emanuel, a top fund-raiser for Bill Clinton, basking in victory with fellow campaign aides by jabbing a steak knife into a table and boastfully pledging revenge against anyone who’d been insufficiently supportive during the campaign. But he was serious, too. Emanuel’s bellicose style quickly won him a demotion in the Clinton White House, although by the close of Clinton’s second term he’d worked his way back into the president’s inner circle.

He’s probably matured some with age – Obama himself has apparently been making this point to the Emanuel-skeptics in his universe – but only to a point. Just consider his tenure running the Democrats’ Congressional campaign committee in the 2006 election cycle.

Emanuel took the job only after shaking down Nancy Pelosi, then the House minority leader, in the days after the 2004 election. Pelosi’s friend, the late Bob Matsui, had decided not to seek a second term in the post and, as is customary when such jobs open up, there were plenty of ambitious congressmen lining up to succeed him. (Among them was New York’s own Joe Crowley).

Emanuel wanted the job too, seeing it as a stepping stone to the Democratic leadership and his ultimate goal of the Speaker’s gavel, but he didn’t pursue it in the usual style. Instead of ingratiating himself with Pelosi and quietly working the Capitol Hill press corps, he enlisted his many well-connected and moneyed allies to campaign for him, spreading the word that he was an unparalleled fund-raiser (the guy who’d hang up on a donor offering $10,000 because “you’re a $25,000 guy”) and a master strategist to boot. Desperate to win, Democrats bit and Pelosi was compelled to pursue Emanuel. Then, when she did, he played hard to get, feigning reluctance to take the job (family and kids were cited) only to give in when Pelosi met his demand of a seat on the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

Granted, that story speaks well of Emanuel’s backroom savvy and chutzpah. But it also shows the unseemly and aggressively self-interested side of Emanuel, one that can rub people the wrong way and complicate his ability to create trust and forge productive relationships with others.

When Emanuel made like Hamlet this week and drew attention to himself by mulling Obama’s offer and portraying himself as conflicted by his family obligations, it immediately called to mind the game he played with Pelosi three years ago and served as a reminder that when it comes to Rahm Emanuel, Rahm Emanuel always comes first.

Once he formally assumed the D.C.C.C. gig in early 2005, Emanuel set to work alienating his fellow Democrats.

The primary job of any D.C.C.C. chairman is, not surprisingly, to raise money, something that always creates some tension within the House Democratic Caucus, since a major portion of the D.C.C.C.’s budget comes from “voluntary” dues from members of Congress – generally somewhere between $150,000 and $750,000, depending on seniority and committee assignment.

Emanuel began treating his fellow Democrats the same way he’d once treated reluctant donors, making thinly veiled threats and dressing them down for tardy or insufficient support. Under Emanuel, the money from Democratic House members did roll in it a better clip than it had in the previous campaign cycle, but his critics said that was only inevitable: In ’06, Democrats smelled a real opportunity to win back the House and were more serious about pitching in.

Money was also the source of a protracted, public and highly counterproductive clash between Emanuel and Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee chairman. Dean was intent on implementing his 50-state strategy – providing resources to state parties even in the reddest pockets of the country. Emanuel believed in a more conventional campaign strategy: Focus on the traditional battlegrounds, and not some farm-building program that might pay off in two decades.

Those are the basics of the dispute, and no matter which of them was right, Emanuel deserves the blame for what ensued. Instead of conducting respectful discussion and negotiations with Dean, Emanuel behaved as if he was being forced to lower himself just by meeting with Dean. He made clear to Dean his low regard for Dean’s understanding of politics and his 50-state concept and demanded $100,000 per targeted House district from the D.N.C. Emanuel wasn’t interested in talking strategy from Dean. He just wanted a blank check – and acted like it was his birthright. At one meeting, he cut Dean off and stormed out the room while unleashing a flurry of profanity. (Somehow, this anecdote quickly made its way into the press – along with countless other stories that, relying on “well-paced sources,” were highly critical of Dean’s 50-state strategy – and sympathetic to Emanuel’s vision.)

But Dean stood his ground and, after a months-long standoff, finally forced Emanuel to compromise. Significant money was sent by the D.N.C. to every state party – and not in one big chunk to the D.C.C.C., as Emanuel wanted it. Two years later, in light of Barack Obama’s campaign-altering incursions into red state America, it’s hard to think that Dean wasn’t on to something – and that it was Emanuel who was a touch naïve. Dean and the D.N.C. could and should have been an ally for Emanuel; instead, he turned them into enemies.

Emanuel needlessly made other enemies through his D.C.C.C. gig. In particular, he aroused the suspicion of members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The reason: In late 2005, James Clyburn, a C.B.C. member from South Carolina, was elevated to the third-ranking post in the Democratic leadership, the chairmanship of the party’s caucus, the highest an African-American had ever climbed in the U.S. House.

At the time, the party was in the minority, but if they won the House back the following year, a new leadership spot would be created (with the top-ranking Democrat, Pelosi, becoming Speaker, and not Majority Leader). In the majority, the third-ranking spot wouldn’t be caucus chairman, it would be whip. And Emanuel, coveting a path to the speakership from his perch as D.C.C.C. chairman, saw the whip’s spot as a good post-election entry-point into the Democratic leadership.

Emanuel’s allies put out the word that he’d be perfect for the job, a clear signal of his interest. Clyburn’s allies grew nervous; would Emanuel help deliver a Democratic victory in 2006 and then use his clout to cut in front of the highest-ranking African American ever to serve in the House? Instead of stepping forward to kill the rumors and improve unity within the party, he let them flourish. The message to the C.B.C. was clear: If he sensed an opportunity, Emanuel would have no reservations about rolling over Clyburn. The implicit threat of a fight with Clyburn and the C.B.C. served a purpose: When the Democrats did take back the House in 2006, Emanuel indicated that he’d be O.K. with the No. 4 leadership spot – caucus chairman – and the relieved leadership was more than happy to accommodate him.

By all accounts, the Obama presidential campaign was an unusually harmonious and cooperative endeavor. With Emanuel as chief of staff, it’s hard to imagine that the same will be true of the Obama White House.

Obama Goes With Mr. Aggression