Obama's designated a--hole

Even a poetic president needs a ruthless deal maker to help execute his agenda. Enter Rahm Emanuel -- aka "Rahmbo" -- the legendary Democratic operator.

Published November 7, 2008 5:59PM (EST)

For one brief moment over the summer, it seemed as if Barack Obama was ready to start throwing his weight around, the way a man who would soon be president of the United States -- even if it wasn't assured at the time -- is entitled to do. On the Senate floor during a vote in June, he spotted Joe Lieberman, who had just conducted yet another conference call organized by John McCain's campaign. Doing his best LBJ impersonation, Obama dragged Lieberman over to a corner, then backed him up against the wall and lectured him on his advocacy for the Republicans.

That one story stands out because during the rest of the 2008 campaign and all its twists, it's hard to find another example of Obama acting aggressive toward anyone. His new White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, doesn't exactly have that problem.

Emanuel -- or, as he's universally known around D.C. and Chicago, Rahm, or sometimes "Rahmbo" -- comes into the new gig with a well-earned reputation as one of Washington's toughest operators. The guy's favorite word is "fuck" and its many variations; he's a brilliant, if ruthless, tactician who helped put House Democrats in control two years ago, then moved up in leadership and helped keep them there this week.

By putting Emanuel in charge of his administration's day-to-day operations, Obama could be getting the best of both worlds: The new White House will still be a place filled with hope, change and all the other idealistic slogans and animating principles that helped him win the election. But lurking inside the West Wing, the new president will have a hatchet man ready to destroy anyone who gets in the way (and enjoy doing it).

As a management theory, it's a variation on "good cop, bad cop," an approach that the music industry actually may have pioneered. The idea is that artists (or, in Obama's case, politicians) who may be creative geniuses sometimes need some help making sure the world outside the studio doesn't roll over them. They need, as the theory puts it in language that could have been borrowed from Emanuel, a designated asshole. Prototypes for this model from the music world include people like Irving Azoff, who has managed the Eagles, Seal, Van Halen and Neil Diamond (and who famously said, "I never met an asshole in the record business I didn't like"); Peter Grant, the force behind Led Zeppelin; and Allen Klein, who managed acts like the Rolling Stones, Sam Cooke and the Beatles (and ended up in litigation with some of them). Emanuel -- whose younger brother Ari is the Hollywood superagent whom "Entourage" writers based Jeremy Piven's character Ari Gold on (reportedly prompting Rahm to tell his brother he liked the TV version better) -- is surely familiar with the concept.

That's not to say Obama is the political world's equivalent of some naive folk singer who just signed his first record deal; he did, after all, come up in Chicago politics, and at any rate, you don't make it to the Oval Office if you don't know how to get people to do what you want them to do. But after eight years of the Bush administration, the country may not be quite ready yet for President Obama to be the one starting the knife fights around town.

So that's where Rahm comes in. Actually, in his case, "knife fights" may be particularly apt. One of the founding myths of the Legend of Rahm is of a night at Doe's, a divey steakhouse in Little Rock, Ark., shortly after Bill Clinton was elected in 1992. Emanuel had worked on the campaign, and would soon move into the White House as political director. Some Clintonistas were sitting around at dinner, griping about all the people who had betrayed the new president. But Emanuel wasn't satisfied just to whine about them. (After all, he races triathlons, marathons apparently being insufficiently challenging.) So he grabbed his steak knife and started plunging it into the table, yelling, "Dead! Dead!" as he rattled off the names of the new administration's enemies.

After six years in the Clinton administration, where he had a hand in both politics and policy, Emanuel worked as an investment banker for a while (another nice low-key kind of job), earning millions. But by 2004, he was back in the political game, winning a House seat from Chicago. Two years later, he was running the House campaign operation, raising far more money than Democrats had done in recent years and helping the party win 30 seats that fall.

Some of the stories about Emanuel, and the details of his life, seem almost too perfect -- except that they are so universally known, and so clearly fit his personality, that they're completely believable. He volunteered in the Israeli military during the first Gulf War in 1991 (and only afterward showed up in the Clinton campaign's war room). He's said to have mailed a rotting fish to a former colleague, and to have cursed out Howard Dean over holding back funding for the 2006 elections. He told Fortune magazine's Nina Easton that he trash-talked President Bush about his mountain biking, trying to goad him into stepping it up to a triathlon and telling Bush he could wear water wings for the swimming segment if he needed them. In the Capitol, he charges through hallways like somebody's life depends on him getting wherever he's going; just before the House approved the Wall Street bailout last month, I spotted him shoving his way through a reception on his way to a meeting and tried to go ask him how the vote was looking, but I couldn't keep up with him.

Yet, for someone as hyper and profane as Emanuel, people who've worked with him seem to love him. "The thing about Rahm that will be great for the administration is he doesn't settle with just good or just great," said Jennifer Crider, a former adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who now works for the DCCC. "He wants it to be outstanding and the best it can be. He pushes and he pushes and he pushes, and he makes the people around him better than they ever thought they could be."

Of course, that's what House Democrats say now, while they're still enjoying the last few days of Rahm being firmly ensconced on their side. Even though Obama plans to work closely with the leadership on the Hill, a time will come next year when the White House clashes with Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid over something. And when it does, everyone in Congress will know exactly what they're in for.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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2008 Elections Barack Obama Democratic Party Entourage Howard Dean Rahm Emanuel