Politics & Government

Emanuel to be Obama's White House chief of staff

President Elect Obama takes phone calls from world leaders in Chicago, IL, 2008.
President Elect Obama takes phone calls from world leaders in Chicago, IL, 2008. David Katz / Obama for America

CHICAGO — President-elect Barack Obama took his first public steps toward building his new administration Thursday, tapping fellow Chicagoan Rep. Rahm Emanuel to be the White House chief of staff.

Obama also received his first top-secret briefing on national security, scheduled a meeting Friday with his economic advisers to be followed by a news conference and accepted an invitation for his wife and him to visit President Bush and Laura Bush at the White House on Monday.

The president-elect also talked by telephone with nine world leaders, who all had called to congratulate Obama for his election victory. Among the U.S. allies he spoke with the top politicians in Israel, Japan and Mexico.

The pick of Emanuel, a veteran of the Clinton White House who's now a top leader in the House of Representatives, suggested that Obama wants a tough taskmaster to run his White House as well as a steely insider who's able to help push the Obama agenda through Congress.

It also signaled a possible shift in tone from his campaign and his willingness to offend some Republicans — and Democrats, for that matter — if necessary to get what he wants.

Emanuel, 48, has represented a north Chicago district in the House since 2003. He quickly rose to influence, and he chaired the Democrats' campaign to retake the House majority in 2006, which succeeded. He's the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House as the chair of the Democratic caucus.

"I announce this appointment first because the chief of staff is central to the ability of a president and administration to accomplish an agenda. And no one I know is better at getting things done than Rahm Emanuel," Obama said in a statement.

He said Emanuel's seven years in the Clinton White House and six years in Congress gave him invaluable experience in the way government worked, while his post-White House work as an investment banker helped give him "deep insights into the challenging economic issues that will be front and center for our administration."

Emanuel, in the statement, called himself humbled and honored, saying he decided to leave his post in Congress only because he thought he could help Obama.

He offered a rare salute to Republicans, saying they serve with "dignity, decency and a deep sense of patriotism." He added, "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."

Intense, often profane and always partisan, Emanuel is a hard-charging Democrat whose style has earned him the nickname "Rahmbo."

News of his appointment angered some Republicans, who called it a betrayal of Obama's pledge of a more civil politics and bipartisan governing.

"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 Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, his party's leader in the House.

"Barack Obama's first decision as president-elect undermines his promise to 'heal the divides.' Rahm Emanuel is a partisan leader who played a lead role in breaking Washington," said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

However, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., noted that he'd worked well with Emanuel when the two were negotiating rules for this year's presidential debates, and called Emanuel a "wise choice" who'll help Obama enact his agenda.

"Rahm knows Capitol Hill and has great political skills. He can be a tough partisan but also understands the need to work together," Graham said. "He's tough but fair. Honest, direct, and candid. These qualities will serve President-elect Obama well."

Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff under President Clinton and once Emanuel's boss there, said that it would be Obama, not Emanuel, who set the tone in the White House and with Congress.

"The chief of staff takes his orders from the president," Panetta said. "Rahm will take his signals from Barack Obama. And the primary role of the chief of staff is not dealing with Congress. His primary role is being the disciplinarian of the White House staff."

The job is one of the most important — if not the most important — in the White House after the president and vice president. Perhaps the most crucial role is managing the president's schedule, deciding which issues and which people reach him and which don't.

"You decide who gets into the Oval Office, who gets on Air Force One," Panetta said.

"President-elect Obama will soon find, even if he had 48 hours in the day, it's not enough for all the people who want to see him, all the memos he wants to read, all the phone calls he wants to make or take," said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary in President Bush's White House.

"Someone powerful and smart needs to protect his time," Fleischer said. "It starts with Obama setting priorities and being disciplined, but it quickly becomes the burden of the chief of staff."

Some have done it well. Bush Chiefs of Staff Andrew Card and Joshua Bolten get high marks from insiders. Panetta, under Clinton, and Sam Skinner, under the first Bush, also were well regarded.

Some didn't do as well.

John Sununu ran roughshod over the elder Bush's White House. "Sununu would hardly let anyone in, and then insisted on being there himself for every meeting," Fleischer said. "That's really debilitating. If the chief of staff is there for everything, people have to measure what they say. The job is to give the president frank counsel."

Sununu eventually was forced to resign after reports that he'd used government planes for personal business.

Emanuel debated the offer for some time. He told WLS television in Chicago on Wednesday, before he accepted, that uprooting his young family was a big part of the reason he hesitated.

"I have a lot to weigh: the basis of public service, which I've given my life to, a career choice. And most importantly, what I want to do as a parent," Emanuel said. "And I know something about the White House. That, I assume, is one of the reasons that President-elect Obama would like me to serve. But I also know something about what it means to a family."

As Emanuel decided to take the job, Obama traveled to a secure FBI office in Chicago on Thursday to receive a detailed intelligence briefing akin to the one given daily to the president. He'll start receiving briefings from the Bush administration on other top issues, including the president's planned economic summit Nov. 15.

"This peaceful transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of a true democracy," Bush said at the White House. "And ensuring that this transition is as smooth as possible is a priority for the rest of my presidency."

Obama will meet with his own panel of 17 economic advisers in Chicago on Friday morning, then will have his first news conference since he was elected.

The Obamas will visit the White House on Monday. Michelle Obama will tour the second-floor residence with first lady Laura Bush, and Barack Obama will meet with President Bush in the Oval Office.

"We understand that the Obama children will not be accompanying them on this visit," White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said, "but we very much look forward to meeting them."

The President-elect returned calls to 9 leaders today, thanking them for having called to express congratulations on his election earlier this week. He returned calls to:

  • Prime Minister Rudd of Australia
  • Prime Minister Harper of Canada
  • President Sarkozy of France
  • Chancellor Merkel of Germany
  • Prime Minister Olmert of Israel
  • Prime Minister Aso of Japan
  • President Calderon of Mexico
  • President Lee of South Korea
  • Prime Minister Brown of the United Kingdom
  • (Talev reported from Chicago, Thomma from Washington.)

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