"Change" was Barack Obama's campaign theme.

"Change ... or else," might be a better mantra for the political hardball players he has chosen for two key roles in his administration.

Rahm Emanuel on Thursday accepted Obama's offer to make him chief of staff. Key sources also confirmed that Robert Gibbs, Obama's bulldog of a senior aide, is in discussions about becoming the voice of the White House as its press secretary.

A White House presence for David Axelrod, Obama's poetic but tough strategist, was also rumored Thursday as the longtime Obama friend and campaign mastermind considered moving from Chicago to Washington to play a key role in the administration.

Clearly, Obama is sending a no-nonsense message by naming Emanuel and considering Gibbs. While Obama intends to lead the nation as the hopeful, inspirational figure who soared to the pinnacle of American politics, he obviously has no intention of assuming a deferential position in the capital.

Both Emanuel and Gibbs are known as scrappy partisans, not at all shy about a tough fight — and certainly not worried about their reputations to that effect.

Emanuel, a Democratic congressman from the North Side, once joked that the literal translation of his first name was "Go screw yourself."

A Democratic operative a few months back described Gibbs, an Alabama native, as "Northern ruthlessness and Southern charm combined." Gibbs said he laughed when he read that in the Tribune.

Among many Democratic partisans these days, that's as much a fond hope as a belief.

"This is not a town where people will give you what you want if you look good standing on the portico of the White House," said Dee Dee Myers, Bill Clinton's first press secretary and later a consultant to the TV series "The West Wing."

Obama already displayed that he wasn't naive, Myers said, when he decided to opt out of the public financing system for the campaign despite past support for the program. When the choice was between having millions and millions of campaign dollars at his disposal and maintaining a sunny symbolism, he chose the former.

"It's really important to have someone who knows how the game is played. There are 435 people in the House and 100 people in the Senate who all have their own agenda," Myers said. "The Clinton team came in less clear-eyed about the way Congress has its own agenda."

Some might have harbored concern that Obama, with his message of inclusion and unity, would not be a fighter. Maybe those people missed the significance of Obama's political upbringing in Chicago, where politics, as they say, "ain't beanbag." Perhaps they weren't watching back in the early days, when he cleared the field of opponents by challenging their right to be on the ballot.

Things were becoming clearer by the end of Thursday, though, when Emanuel and, likely Gibbs, became part of the White House team.

Emanuel is a veteran of the White House, having worked as an aide in the Clinton administration. After winning election to the U.S. House in 2002, he has risen steadily through the ranks and is widely credited for the Democratic takeover of the chamber in 2006.

One common story sums up his reputation around Washington. In a Little Rock restaurant near the end of a Clinton campaign, Emanuel expressed dismay with Democrats he felt had betrayed the team. He picked up a steak knife and shouted "Dead!" as he spiked the knife into the table. Shouting the names of other disfavored Democrats one by one, he stabbed the table shouting, "Dead! Dead! Dead!"

Emanuel has joked about the story in the past. On Thursday he sounded a conciliatory note in a joint statement he released with Obama.

"I want to say a special word about my Republican colleagues, who serve with dignity, decency and a deep sense of patriotism," Emanuel wrote. "We often disagree, but I respect their motives. 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."

Republicans were skeptical.