x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Rahm Emanuel: Obama's bruiser can take the flak

The American president's first appointment is a ballet dancer who preferred bare-knuckle politics and is so busy networking, he gets the president to take the odd call.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National
Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National

When Rahm Emanuel became Barack Obama's first appointment after he was elected to the highest office in America, the choice seemed bold but brilliant. Emanuel, the cynical and foul-mouthed insider would guide the idealistic and inexperienced president through the dirty waters of Washington politics. Together they would create a new Camelot, re-energise the Democrats and bridge the divide between conservatives and liberals after years of divisive politics under the Bush administration. So much for expectations.

The economy is still in the doldrums, a healthcare bill is struggling to get support, Guantanamo Bay is still open despite Obama's promises. Attempts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks have gone nowhere. The president's own popularity is dipping. As some of Obama's supporters cast around for someone to blame and the Republicans look to seize upon possible dissent in the administration's top ranks, Emanuel is the obvious scapegoat.

Now the knives are out for one of the most high profile and powerful chiefs of staff in a generation; a man who was said to be the inspiration for the Josh Lyman character in the television series The West Wing. The criticisms are not coming from Obama's still highly disciplined inner circle. Instead, the turmoil is being played out in the insular, navel-gazing world of the Washington media scene. A recent profile in the New York Times explored growing tensions between a president, whose domestic popularity is haemorrhaging, and a chief of staff, whose aggressive tactics are seen by some as counter productive.

There are claims that Emanuel had provided background for a series of articles in The Washington Post defending his record. "Rahm: Player or Played Out?", one Fox News commentator blogged. One widespread rumour has Emanuel fleeing the White House after just 18 months to run for mayor in his home town of Chicago. Healthcare reform is Obama's most important domestic priority and the real test for Emanuel will come next week when the House votes on a controversial and ambitious $940 billion plan to reform health care by lowering its cost and expanding coverage to 32 million uninsured Americans.

The Republicans have promised a bitter fight and the president will need his chief of staff on top form. Emanuel, whose take-no-prisoners style of operating has earned him the nickname "Rahmbo", once sent a rotting fish to a pollster who angered him. According to conspiracy theories, the missing part of his middle finger was lost fighting for Israel during its invasion of Lebanon in 1982. (The truth is more prosaic - while working at a fast food joint in high school he had an accident with a meat slicer.)

In the coming days he will need to muster every ounce of the hardpan tactics he has honed in Washington for more than two decades to get 216 votes required to pass the health bill. His career and the credibility of the Obama administration could depend on it. Washington's politics may be brutal but American politicians are largely a bland, politically correct lot. Emanuel, a former high school ballet dancer who still maintains a lean look, stands out as one of the few characters who doesn't always speak on message and every comment that ventures beyond the dull and tightly scripted is big news.

He found himself recently in hot water after Eric Massa, who resigned from Congress for allegedly groping a male employee, accused Emanuel of confronting him stark naked in the shower of the White House gym and yelling at him for not supporting Obama's policies while jabbing his finger into Massa's chest. "Do you know how awkward it is to have a political argument with a naked man?" Massa complained to reporters.

But brash outspokenness was instilled in him at an early age. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Rahm Israel Emmanuel is a product of America's Jewish middle class, hard-working and family-oriented. The Emanuels' politics were liberal - his mother took her three boys to civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s - but Zionist. Rahm's father Benjamin, a retired paediatrician now living in Israel, was once a member of Irgun, the militant Zionist group.

Dinner table conversations in the Emanuel household were charged and argumentative. The boys were expected to stay on top of news events to be able to hold conversations. Rahm's mother took him to art galleries and he danced ballet in high school. He was offered a scholarship to study ballet but chose the prestigious Sarah Lawrence College, a small liberal arts college. These days, all three Emanuel brothers are prominent in American public life.

Ariel, the youngest, is a top Hollywood agent and the model for Ari Gold, the hyperactive and profane agent on the HBO TV series Entourage. Ezekiel, the eldest sibling, is a Harvard medical professor. "We were cloned, fully grown," he once remarked. An adopted sister Shoshana has not fared so well, drifting in and out of welfare and taking drugs. It was their father who taught them to challenge authority, a lesson Tony Blair had a taste of when as prime minister in 1997 he came out to publicly support an embattled Bill Clinton in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Emanuel, then a senior adviser to Clinton, told the British prime minister: "This is important. Don't **** it up."

Unfortunately, the lessons around the parental dining table did not appear to include the art of diplomacy. The Arab world interpreted Emanuel's appointment as a signal that there would be no change from an unquestioningly pro-Israeli stance in the new administration. That suspicion appeared to be confirmed by comments from Emanuel's father that his son would "obviously influence the president to be pro-Israel".

"Why wouldn't he be? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House," he told an Israeli reporter. Rahm apologised for his father's remarks. He supports the US administration's opposition to the expansion of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, a position which has angered some of Israel's American supporters. His involvement in politics began in high school, pounding the pavements to campaign for Abner Mikva, then a congressman.

The big break came in Washington by raising money for Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992. In 20 days he raised US$3.3 million (Dh12m), often standing on the table shouting at donors and hanging up the phone if he didn't think they offered enough. It got him into the White House, but his screaming matches irked Hillary Clinton so much that she engineered his demotion. Chastised, he made a comeback by helping the president pass the North American Free Trade Agreement.

After that, he became one of Clinton's longest serving advisers. With the Republican presidential victory in 2000, he moved back to Chicago with his wife Amy and joined an investment bank. The $18 million he earned would propel a return to his first love, politics, as well as ensure his family was well taken care of. In 2002, he ran for election and won a seat in Illinois. But Congressman Emanuel was, like the rest of the Democrats, adrift in a political wilderness.

Nancy Pelosi, desperate to become the first female House Speaker, needed someone to run the campaign to take back Congress from the neocons. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. There were more experienced candidates for the task but no one could outmatch Emanuel for sheer energy and intensity. He accepted the job in January 2005. He raised money for attack ads, recruited all the candidates himself and drew up a strategy to seize on public anger over the Iraq war. It worked. In the 2006 midterm elections, the Democrats surged back to power, ending 12 years of Republican dominance.

He told his biographer, Naftali Bendavid, that he accepted Pelosi's offer to head the Democratic congressional campaign committee because, as a lifelong politician, his turn would come sooner or later. Better to do the job when his three children were still young. "I made a determination that I wanted to get it done while the kids are nine, seven, and six, rather than have this job when they're 12, 11, and 10. There's a difference. There is a higher than normal suicide rate among members' kids, when you look at it on a per-capita basis. And nothing is that important. I'm going to be around for them."

Unlike the rest of Obama's inner circle, Emanuel did not suffer the trials of the presidential campaign. His relationship with the president is said to be less chummy than others, such as the press secretary Robert Gibbs, or the senior adviser David Axelrod, who holiday together at Camp David. But Emanuel brought with him lengthy experience working under the Clinton administration, a network of donors, journalists, a Rolodex of 6,000 contacts and a reputation as a bruiser.

His exhausting schedule begins with a 5am swim followed by the first meeting in the White House at 7.30am. He makes at least 50 phone calls in a day - a senior Democratic politician once rang Emanuel only to be told he was too busy to talk. Emanuel passed the phone to Obama to take the call. He carries a "to do" list in his pocket and checks off each item one by one. The list is long and difficult. Emanuel helped pass the $787 billion economic stimulus package last year - he got a special waiver from his rabbi to work through the Rosh Hashanah holiday - but the challenges are massive.

He is said to have advised Obama not to promise to shut down the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year because it was unrealistic. On health care, he supported a bill made up of smaller reforms such as providing children with better access to health care, which would easily gain bipartisan support. Instead the bill is a behemoth and has exposed the deep ideological divisions in America. But as the president's enforcer-in-chief, Emanuel knows to adopt the president's positions as his own.

He will have to remember his own motto in the week ahead: That you never let a serious crisis go to waste - because it provides an opportunity to "do things you have never done before". @Email:hghafour@thenational.ae