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Partisan, Playful and Profane, Obama Aide Tries to Hold It In, Remains Sexy While Doing So



By MARK LEIBOVICH

WASHINGTON — Earlier this month, Barack Obama was meeting with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers when Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, began nervously cracking a knuckle.

Mr. Obama then turned to complain to Mr. Emanuel about his noisy habit.

At which point, Mr. Emanuel held the offending knuckle up to Mr. Obama’s left ear and — like an annoying little brother — snapped off a few special cracks.

The episode, relayed by someone familiar with the incident, underscores some essential truths about Mr. Emanuel: He is brash, has a deep comfort level with his new boss, and has been ever-present at Mr. Obama’s side of late, in meetings, on podiums and in numerous photographs.

There he was, standing at Mr. Obama’s desk in one of the first Oval Office pictures; there he was again, playfully thumbing his nose at his former House colleagues during the inauguration; there he was, accompanying the president to a meeting with Congressional leaders on Friday.

Mr. Emanuel is arguably the second most powerful man in the country and, just a few days into his tenure, already one of the highest-profile chiefs of staff in recent memory. He starred in his own Mad magazine cartoon, won the “Your New Obama Hottie” contest on Gawker.com and has become something of a paparazzi icon around Washington.

In recent months, he has played a critical role in the selection and courtship of nearly every cabinet member and key White House staff member.

Renowned as a fierce partisan, he has been an ardent ambassador to Republicans, including Mr. Obama’s defeated rival, Senator John McCain. He has exerted influence on countless decisions; in meetings, administration officials say, Mr. Obama often allows him to speak first and last.

“You can see how he listens and reacts to Rahm,” said Ron Klain, the chief of staff to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. “You can see that his opinion is being shaped.”

One reason Mr. Emanuel, 49, has drawn so much attention is that he is seems to be in a kind of recalibration mode.

How will the feisty, bombastic and at times impulsive former congressman blend with the cool, collegial and deliberate culture of Obama World? And one that is trying to foster bipartisanship? This is someone who once wrote in Campaign and Elections magazine that “the untainted Republican has not yet been invented” and who two years ago — according to a book about Mr. Emanuel (“The Thumpin’ ” by Naftali Bendavid) — announced to his staff that Republicans are “bad people who deserve a two-by-four upside their heads.”

Attempts at a New Aura

It is clear to friends and colleagues that Mr. Emanuel is trying to rein himself in, lower his voice, even cut down on his use of profanity.

“As chief of staff, you take on the aura and image and, in some instance, the political values of the person you work for,” said the former congressman Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican who is now secretary of transportation. “I think he’s beginning to morph himself into the Obama image.”

Mr. Emanuel acknowledged in an interview that stereotypes of him as a relentless hothead had some factual basis. But it is an exaggerated or outdated picture, he said.

“I’m not yelling at people; I’m not jumping on tables,” he said. “That’s a campaign. Being the chief of staff of a government is different. You have different tools in your toolbox.”

Still, his high profile and temperament are at odds with that of some past White House chiefs of staff: They were often low-key types who put the “staff” part of their job titles before “chief” — as Andrew H. Card Jr., the longtime chief of staff to former President George W. Bush, suggested to Mr. Emanuel last month.

Mr. Emanuel, who had hopes of becoming the next speaker of the House, has stepped into a job characterized by short tenures — just under two and a half years, on average — high burnout rates and the need to subjugate personal ambitions to the service of the president.

He is not accustomed to fading discreetly into the background. As a staff member in the Clinton White House, a three-term House member from Chicago and the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he was viewed by many as a consummate purveyor of a crass, kneecapping brand of politics.

Mr. Obama acknowledged as much at a 2005 roast for Mr. Emanuel, who is a former ballet dancer, during which Mr. Obama credited him with being “the first to adopt Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ for dance” (a number that included “a lot of kicks below the waist”). When Mr. Emanuel lost part of his middle finger while cutting meat at an Arby’s as a teenager, Mr. Obama joked, the accident “rendered him practically mute.”

The video of that roast has become a recent sensation on the Internet and buttressed a view among some Republicans that Mr. Emanuel’s appointment was, in the words of the House minority leader, Representative John A. Boehner, “an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil.”

While acknowledging that he can be something of a showman, friends say Mr. Emanuel has calmed considerably over the years.

“He’s more temperate now,” said David Axelrod, a senior White House adviser and longtime Emanuel friend who dismissed much of his flamboyant reputation as “pure myth.” He added, “A lot of it is a reputation he earned as a younger guy.”

On the Go Before Sunrise

Late Friday afternoon at the end of his first week in the White House, Mr. Emanuel was sitting in his corner office, sick with a cold, baggy-eyed and looking tired. “Everyone keeps saying, ‘Are you having fun?’” he says. “Fun is not the first adjective that comes to mind.”

He woke as usual at 5 a.m., swam a mile at the Y, read papers and was in the office at 7 for the senior staff meeting at 7:30. There was a meeting in the Situation Room about Afghanistan, a leadership meeting, a conversation with the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, a meeting with Senator Orrin Hatch, budget meetings, several conversations with the president.

Mr. Emanuel, in the interview, rejected any notion that he is reinventing himself for his new job. But he is mindful, he said, that he must fit into a culture that was forged over two years on a campaign, “a group that was part of a journey together.”

Mr. Obama had settled on his fellow Chicagoan to be his chief of staff well before he was elected. He was drawn to Mr. Emanuel’s experience in both the White House and Congress and called him “the whole package” of political acumen, policy chops and pragmatism. He is also a skilled compromiser. “He knows there is a time in this business to drop the switchblades and make a deal,” said Representative Adam H. Putnam, Republican of Florida.

Mr. Emanuel initially resisted taking the job. But he came around after Mr. Obama kept insisting, saying that these were momentous times and that the awesome tasks he faced required Mr. Emanuel’s help. The then president-elect also assured Mr. Emanuel that the position would be the functional equivalent of “a No. 2” or “right-hand man,” according to a person familiar with their exchanges.

Since taking the job, Mr. Emanuel spent endless hours reaching out to lawmakers. Mr. Reid gave out Mr. Emanuel’s personal cellphone number — with Mr. Emanuel’s blessing — at a caucus meeting of about 40 Senate Democrats earlier this month. (“He seems to speak to every senator every day,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.)

He has been equally solicitous of Republicans. On days he does not swim, he works out — and conducts business — at the House gym: 25 minutes on the bike, 20 minutes on the elliptical, 120 sit-ups, 55 push-ups and many sweaty conversations with his former colleagues. (In a recent encounter there, for instance, with Representative Peter Hoekstra, Republican of Michigan, Mr. Emanuel secured his support for Leon E. Panetta to become director of the Central Intelligence Agency.)

Mr. Emanuel has made some early distractions — his conversations with Gov. Rod R. Blogojevich of Illinois about Mr. Obama’s then-vacant Senate seat, his failure to alert Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to Mr. Panetta’s appointment.

So far, Mr. Emanuel has been more chief than staff in performing his job, according to several officials. He advocated fiercely for posts for fellow Clinton administration alums like Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Panetta; not so much for the outgoing Democratic National Committee chairman, Howard Dean, with whom he had clashed while at the Congressional Campaign Committee . (“He was never negative about Dean,” said the Obama transition head, John Podesta, who added, “I wouldn’t characterize it as the other way, either.”)

Mr. Emanuel has also served as the administration’s chief headhunter. When the Office of Management and Budget director, Peter R. Orszag, had doubts about taking the job, Mr. Emanuel went into his default mode — jackhammering away at him, tracking him down in Hong Kong. “You can’t sit on the sidelines; you’ve got to come inside,” Mr. Emanuel told him.

Asked if “relentless” would be a fair characterization of Mr. Emanuel’s recruitment method, Mr. Orszag said, simply: “He’s Rahm. Come on.”

The selection of Mr. LaHood demonstrates Mr. Emanuel’s sway with Mr. Obama. After Mr. Emanuel sounded out Mr. LaHood about his interest in joining the administration, he was summoned to a meeting in Chicago with the president-elect.

The interview lasted 30 minutes, just Mr. Obama and Mr. LaHood.

“Look, Rahm Emanuel loves you,” Mr. Obama told Mr. LaHood as he prepared to leave. “He is really pressing me and pushing me. And it’s not that I don’t want to do it, but ... ”

A few days later, Mr. LaHood was picked to be secretary of transportation.

Banter With the Boss

At a White House gathering with Mr. Obama and a bipartisan team of lawmakers on Friday, the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, joked that Mr. Emanuel was too busy to talk to him, so he called the president instead. Mr. Obama said he was always happy to take calls for his chief of staff — a reference to an incident a few weeks ago when Mr. Hoyer called Mr. Emanuel, who was in the back of a car and claimed he was too busy to talk, so he handed the phone to Mr. Obama.

In meetings, it is not uncommon for Mr. Obama and Mr. Emanuel to engage in a teasing banter. One White House official recalls an exchange last week in which Mr. Obama said something to the effect of, “Well, I was going to do that, but I didn’t want Rahm to mope for a half-hour.”

But it will not always be so pleasant for Mr. Emanuel. “He’s going to be blamed for a lot of things,” Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma, said of his former colleague.

Saying no is a big part of being chief of staff. Infighting is inevitable; so are enemies and rivalries.

In addition to cabinet officials — and the vice president — a cadre of “senior advisers” will be seeking the president’s attention. They include Pete Rouse (Mr. Obama’s chief of staff in the Senate), Valerie Jarrett (a close Obama family friend) and Mr. Axelrod, whose office is a few feet closer to the Oval Office than is Mr. Emanuel’s. The White House spokesman, Robert Gibbs, one of the Mr. Obama’s closest Senate and campaign aides, will also enjoy walk-in access to the president.

Mr. Emanuel has been in the job four days — and, by day’s end Friday, it looked more like four years.

He is slumped deep in his couch, periodically swatting at a giant fly that keeps orbiting his office. He is hoping to get out of the office to meet some friends for the Jewish Sabbath dinner. He has a physical therapy appointment for a pinched nerve in his neck. He missed his children — 8, 10 and 11 — who are visiting this week but are soon headed back to Chicago, where they are remaining for now. “For me to be the parent I want to be, I think it’s very hard,” he said, referring to the demands of his current job.

Just then, Mr. Orszag arrived at his door.

“Orz, what’s wrong?” Mr. Emanuel said. “Can you give me a minute, or do you need something?”



He needed something.

Mr. Emanuel left, returned and started talking about how his staffs tended to be loyal.

“I drive people as hard as I drive myself,” he said.

Then Mr. Obama came to his door.

“Mr. President!” Mr. Emanuel said, jumping from his couch to his feet in something that resembled a dance move, and they walked out together.

SOURCE

I love the last few bits at the end of the article. Also, I used a different photo than the one in the article because this one is better.
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