Obama's hard-nosed right-hand man

Today's question: Can future Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel keep Barack Obama on track, or was his selection the first sign of Obama's partisanship getting in the way of his effectiveness? All week, Scott Lilly and David Weigel discuss Obama's transition to power.

Emanuel: 'tough, but fair'Point: Scott Lilly

David, no one can deny that Rep. Rahm Emanuel is a hard-edged, in-your-face kind of politician. Most members of Congress will attest to that fact -- but most will also tell you that Emanuel practices his brand of politics in a purely bipartisan manner. He has exposed his rough edges as frequently to Democrats as Republicans. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) recently noted, "He's tough, but fair -- honest, direct and candid."

The real question is how his style of political operation will fit into the well-oiled and smoothly functioning Obama operation. Barack Obama's campaign was unparalleled for its internal collegiality and cooperation. Team Obama won in large part because it spent its time fighting the opposition rather than itself.

Can that team carry the same ethic into the White House? Can Emanuel lead such an effort? Only time will tell, but it is a critical question because a White House staff modeled on the Obama campaign that functions without the internecine struggles typical of previous administrations would be a hugely powerful tool in the hands of a president who has promised to bring about significant change. If Emanuel's management skills can sustain the ethic of collegiality and mutual respect that characterized the campaign, the future chief of staff's other talents will enhance Obama's chances for success.

Emanuel is relatively unique among incoming chiefs of staff in that he has served in senior positions in both the White House (under Bill Clinton) and Congress. He knows the resources available to a president and the thorny problems he will face in moving legislation over the various hurdles on Capitol Hill. He is well suited to solve problems at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue so that his president has an opportunity to focus more time and energy on the tough policy choices confronting the country.

David, it should also be pointed out that to date, the Obama transition has been one of remarkable bipartisanship and cooperation between incoming and outgoing administrations. To be sure, President Bush, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and Bush transition chief Clay Johnson deserve much of the credit. Still, the new tone coming from Washington this last week is unmistakably different from what have grown accustomed to -- and it is coming from both camps. While it is still early, we are thus far witnessing a transition that is unlike any in our nation's history in terms of the level of cooperation and what it portends for a government ready to govern on inauguration day.

The next challenge will be to see if this cooperation can spill over into the administration's dealings with Congress. There is little doubt in my mind that Obama is sincere in reaching out to Republicans in Congress, but restoring greater comity to policymaking in Washington will require effort on both sides.

Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, has served in numerous posts for members of Congress and the Democratic Party.

Emanuel and the all-powerful Obama administrationCounterpoint: David Weigel


Is there a "new tone in Washington" this week? Of course. But I don't think it's the sound of Republicans and Democrats learning to get along and not step on each other's toes. I hear the distinct gurgle of an elephant flat on its back and mortally wounded and the clip-clop of a donkey trotting past the murder scene. What I sense in this city right now is the correct presumption that Republicans don't matter. The Emanuel pick is proof of that.

There's some evidence of this today in Glenn Thrush’s story at Politico.com about the good cop/bad cop role insiders expect Emanuel to play with Vice President-elect Joe Biden. Emanuel's reputation for gun-slinging and middle-finger-wagging is going to play off Biden's logorrhea and Senate back-slapping to achieve a common goal: the steam-rolling of the Republican minority. Thrush is probably too sanguine about this when he writes that the "conservative bloc in the Senate remains unified." There won't be enough of a bloc to stop the Democratic agenda as Obama and Emanuel are crafting it. Even if the three Republican Senate seats that are up in the air go their way, the GOP conference will include Maine's Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter, and the latter of the trio is up for election in two years. By contrast, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has always faced close reelection contests, just watched his home state turn its deepest shade of blue since 1964. There's not a single Democrat in the Senate who will filibuster an Obama judicial nominee or the Employee Free Choice Act.

True, the White House team -- and outgoing Chief of Staff Bolten in particular -- have been gracious and helpful to the incoming Obama squad. I take that as another reason Obama and Emanuel will have an easy time exerting their will. As the first black president, Obama is going to enjoy a political honeymoon comparable to the first six months of Ronald Reagan's administration. (That was bolstered when he survived John Hinckley Jr.'s assassination attempt.) You could see the odd shape in which this would bend our politics when Bush’s statement on the Obama win bordered on joy and when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice located her emotion chip to explain how proud the Obama win made her. The Obama team is going to experience about as little resistance in its first months as the Medici did when they took Florence.

Another token of the Obama influence: Even I'm pretty optimistic about the Emanuel appointment. For a long time, conventional Democratic wisdom was that the party could only win the White House with a Southern governor on the ticket. That got Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton elected, but in their first years they stayed Southern governors: bumbling, outflanked and too close to the cronies that rose to power with them. Emanuel is politically close to Obama, but he was chosen because of his political tenderizing in the last White House, in which he watched healthcare reform go down in flames and battled a majority of his party's conference to pass the North American Free Trade Agreement.

And that leads to my question for you, Scott: Emanuel is good at beating Republicans, but how confident are you that he's going to bring about the center-left political realignment that organizations like yours were set up to make? The NAFTA fight proved that Emanuel is a free trader, and as Obama economic advisor Austan Goolsbee reportedly told us (by way of leaked Canadian intel) during the primaries, the president-elect's interest in rolling back trade deals began and ended with winning Ohio. As a candidate for Congress in 2002 in a very safe district, Emanuel supported the Iraq war. I remember this very well, as I was living up the road in Evanston, Ill., and heard liberal friends quail that this wasn't a very inspiring campaign to work on. (Obama came along two years later to fix that problem for them.) My pervading memory of Emanuel these last four years is a three-act play in which an anti-war liberal activist would declare his or her candidacy for Congress, Emanuel would pluck a more conservative and electable candidate out of the ether and he would either lead his candidate to victory or step aside as the liberal won the primary and fought the GOP alone.

That's my question. I know why I'm experiencing alternate bursts of resignation at Democratic power and optimism about Emanuel's neo-liberal instincts. Why are you so optimistic?

David Weigel is an associate editor at Reason magazine, where he writes a column on national politics.

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