Last Friday, Rahm Emanuel, the most powerful White House chief of staff since Ronald Regan’s James Baker, announced his resignation. He leaves his powerful position within Obama’s administration to run for the coveted position of mayor of Chicago.
After much speculation over his intentions to run for a seat that has been occupied for the last 20 years by the incumbent Richard Daley, Emanuel’s decision to resign as chief of staff marks but another turn in the long and successful political career of this native Chicagoan. A former House member, and chairperson of the Democratic Caucus, Emanuel has been a crucial leader in the Democratic Party for sometime.
The public’s fascination with Rahm Emanuel, however, is complicated, and this mayoral race is anything but decided for. While Emanuel has been at the forefront of many of the Democratic Party’s most important victories in the last years, he is all but a beloved figure. On the contrary, he is controversial for his successes as well as his compromises. Democrats criticized him for giving in too much during the healthcare reform, while Republicans have lambasted him for standing in the way of bipartisan cooperation. Not to mention, “Rahmbo,” as the media refers to him, has an attitude and he is not afraid to show it.
From sending a dead fish to a pollster who he accused of causing his candidate an election, to stabbing a knife into a table while citing the people who betrayed Bill Clinton, Emanuel has a flare for the dramatic. But his cantankerous disposition sprinkled by his use of profanity has made him a force to be reckoned with politically. As chief of staff he was involved in every policy development the White House took on, from the economic stimulus, to national security. And his mastery of the White House and American politics was the reason he was chosen for the job to begin with.
Obama referred to him as “the whole package” for his experience both in Congress and as a former staff member in the Clinton White House—even though that experience had come with a short demotion due to a conflict Emanuel had with then First Lady Hilary Clinton. Nevertheless, cognizant as he was of his fledgling experience in governing, Obama’s decision to bring in a well-versed, well-connected and spirited chief of staff allowed for Emanuel’s position to expand further than many chiefs before him, effectively becoming the president’s right hand man. He would come to play a crucial role in the formation of the government, being involved in the selection of every cabinet member, not to mention his role in the negotiation of the stimulus package.
Despite the opportunity that his new position presented, Rahm Emanuel was originally hesitant to accept it. Rather than taking a role that is characterized by sacrificing personal ambition, Emanuel had his eyes on being the first Jewish speaker of the House. But after turning down the president’s offer, Emanuel, noted his brother in an interview with The New Yorker, realized it was a position he had to accept.
Since his days as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence, Emanuel has been involved in one way or another in the making of politics and politicians, which, in the United States, is synonymous with fund raising. He was a junior fund-raiser and field organizer for the senatorial campaign of Paul Simon, later becoming a top staffer at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He was deeply involved in two of Richard Daley’s mayoral campaigns, who he now aims to replace. His superb campaigning skills, which will likely prove useful for him come November, were also what kept Bill Clinton in the lead, and which earned him the position of advisor to the president. In what appears to be his only deviation from politics, barring his amateur ballet dancing experience, following his time in the Clinton White House, Emanuel brought his Midas touch to investment banking where he reportedly made 20 million dollars in less than three years.
Political mastermind seems an understatement when referring to the person called most responsible for the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress. And while Emanuel is definitely gifted when it comes to making politicians, it is unclear how exactly Chicago— a city with dirty politics (let's recall governor Blagojevich who was acquitted for selling President Obama’s Senate seat), and complicated ethnic division—will respond to his campaign. With only a few days as an official candidate, buttons sporting the sign ABRE or “Anyone but Rahm Emanuel” are visible in the city, reported The Washington Post.
What is more questionable perhaps is how the void he is leaving in the Obama White House may affect this year’s upcoming elections. Far from facilitating the Democrat’s intention to hold on to the Senate, Rahm Emanuel’s departure could put the White House’s strategy to keep Democratic seats in danger. Although he has been the target of criticism from the left and right, his departure could do more to justify his accomplishments if a replacement is unable to fill the wide range of responsibilities Emanuel created during his two year tenure as chief of staff.