Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a Chicago Democrat known for slash-and-burn Washington tactics but widely respected for his keen political instincts, accepted President-elect Barack Obama‘s offer Thursday to serve as White House chief of staff.
Known as a fierce partisan, Mr. Emanuel attempted to reassure his Republican colleagues that he would work in a bipartisan spirit in the Obama White House.
“We often disagree, but I respect their motives,” Mr. Emanuel said. “Now is a time for unity, and Mr. President-elect, I will do everything in my power to help you stitch together the frayed fabric of our politics, and help summon Americans of both parties to unite in common purpose.”
His appointment nevertheless set off alarms for Republican lawmakers and conservatives who were looking for signs Mr. Obama will keep his promise to bring a “new kind of politics” to Washington.
“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 House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
In announcing the appointment, Mr. Obama said he filled the post first because it was critical to accomplishing his agenda.
“No one I know is better at getting things done than Rahm Emanuel,” he said, citing the fellow Illinoisian’s stint as an adviser in the Clinton White House, his speedy rise in House leadership and his experience in the financial industry.
“Though Rahm understands how to get things done in Washington, he still looks at the world from the perspective of his neighbors and constituents on the Northwest Side of Chicago, who work long and hard, and ask only that their government stand on their side and honor their values,” Mr. Obama said. “The son of an Israeli immigrant, Rahm shares a passionate love for this country, and has devoted much of his life to its cause.”
Mr. Emanuel, the son of an Israeli doctor who immigrated to the United States, honed his tough-guy demeanor growing up in the posh Chicago suburb of Wilmette. His brother, Ari, is a Hollywood agent and the inspiration for Ari Gold, the Type-A superagent on HBO’s “Entourage.”
Tom Fitton, president of the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch, called the appointment “disturbing.” He noted that in the Clinton administration, Mr. Emanuel ran damage control against the Whitewater investigation, which included the Monica Lewinsky affair and campaign-finance scandals.
“At the Clinton White House he was out to destroy anyone who stood in the way of their goals,” Mr. Fitton said. “He doesn’t have the temperament or ethical judgement to be chief of staff in a white House.”
His tough-guy attitude, which earned him the nickname “Rahmbo” in the Clinton White House, has also ruffled feathers in his own party. Democratic strategist Paul Begala once described his aggressive style as a “cross between a hemorrhoid and a toothache.”
Defending Mr. Emanuel, Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland said a president’s chief of staff “needs to knock heads together from time to time.”
“It is a smart choice,” said Mr. Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). “With Rahm you get both a great strategist and a great tactician, someone who knows the politics and the policy. You get it all in one package.”
Critics of Mr. Emanuel’s combative personality cannot ignore his string of political victories, including plotting the strategy for the Democrats’ congressional gains in the past two elections.
He also oversaw key successes in the Clinton administration, including adoption of the North American Free Trade Agreement and an assault-weapons ban.
Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Emanuel is known for raking in huge amounts of campaign cash, a skill that helped keep Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign during the Gennifer Flowers sex scandal.
Since his election to Congress in 2002, after making millions as a partner in a Chicago investment bank, Mr. Emanuel rose quickly through the ranks.
He set fundraising records as DCCC chairman. This year the DCCC outspent Republicans by pouring tens of millions of dollars into House races and helped Democrats pick up more than 20 seats Tuesday.
Mr. Emanuel then served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee during the 2005-2006 election cycle, when the Democrats regained a majority for the first time since 1994.
“He’s a good tactician. He’s a creative thinker,” Democrat Rep. Danny K. Davis of Illinois told the Associated Press after the 2006 elections. “But I think what probably makes him most successful is that he has the will to follow his convictions.”