A Different Kind of White House

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, November 6, 2008; 1:02 PM

In selecting Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff, President-elect Barack Obama is telegraphing that he intends his White House to operate very differently from President Bush's.

For one, Obama's decision to fill that job first indicates its return to its historical significance. In most recent White Houses, the chief of staff has essentially been a deputy president -- managing the staff, setting priorities, and putting his stamp on the presidency in any number of other ways. By contrast, during most of the Bush era, political guru Karl Rove and Vice President Cheney loomed much larger than the chief of staff ever did.

Bush's first chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., was popular with his staff and oversaw the most leak-proof, on-time, on-message White House in history. But he was not a big influence on Bush. He was more like Bush's nanny.

Card spent many hours of his legendarily long work days aggressively monitoring and limiting the information flow to the president. "The president has to have time to eat, sleep and be merry, or he'll make angry, grumpy decisions," Card said in a 2004 radio interview.

Bush sacrificed Card in March 2006, in response to the growing complaints after Hurricane Katrina about the administration's incompetence. And Card's replacement, Joshua Bolten, by most accounts, has been much more assertive with Bush. But he remains mostly a technocrat, rather than a political player in his own right.

In Emanuel, Obama would be putting a force of nature at his side -- a man who, for better and for worse, has a reputation as being one of the most aggressive political figures in Washington.

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times that Emanuel "earned the nickname Rahmbo for his determination and take-no-prisoners approach -- an advantage when trying to bring a thorny issue to resolution, but a style that can be off-putting to those accustomed to gentility."

Naftali Bendavid writes in the Chicago Tribune that Emanuel "is best known as something of a Democratic political assassin. From his days as a top aide to President Bill Clinton to his recent role leading the Democrats to a House majority, Emanuel has relentlessly attacked his foes and gone ruthlessly after anyone who stood in his way. . . .

"Emanuel earned a reputation for a colorful intensity unusual even in the hard-hitting world of politics. His profanity is legendary and seems designed in part to throw his interlocutors off-balance."

That said, Bendavid also notes that "a different Emanuel has emerged in recent years, one who has forged friendships with Republicans and shown an ability to work with them on occasion."

John McCormick, Mike Dorning and Christi Parsons write in the Chicago Tribune: "In terms of management and interpersonal style, Emanuel is strikingly different from Obama. He is dramatic and partisan, with an affinity for the kind of hardball politics from which Obama shies away. That may be part of the attraction, some say.

"'Ultimately, Barack would rather be the good cop than the bad cop,' said the Obama insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity. 'He knows what his strengths and weaknesses are. He wants Rahm in there to play that role.'

"One strategist calls Emanuel an 'inspired choice' for Obama. . . .

"'A chief of staff has to have steel in his spine and Rahm has that in ample measure,' said William Galston, a former Clinton domestic policy aide who worked with Emanuel in the Clinton White House."

Jonathan Weisman and Deborah Solomon write in the Wall Street Journal: "Mr. Emanuel and Sen. Obama, close friends from Chicago, would be a study in contrasts, but congressional sources say that is intentional. Mr. Emanuel wouldn't be a back-room conciliator who brings disparate voices to consensus, but an enforcer who bangs heads and keeps the troops in line."

Obama has also tapped John D. Podesta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff, to lead his transition team. Peter Baker and Jeff Zeleny write in the New York Times: "In turning to Mr. Emanuel and Mr. Podesta, Mr. Obama sought out two of the hardest-hitting veterans of President Bill Clinton's administration, known for their deep Washington experience, savvy and no-holds-barred approach to politics. Neither is considered a practitioner of the 'new politics' that Mr. Obama promised on the campaign trail to bring Republicans and Democrats together, suggesting that the cool and conciliatory new president is determined to demonstrate toughness from the beginning."


Elisabeth Bumiller wrote about Emanuel -- and his two similarly over-achieving brothers -- in the New York Times in 1997: "The best Rahm Emanuel story is not the one about the decomposing two-and-a-half-foot fish he sent to a pollster who displeased him. It is not about the time - the many times - that he hung up on political contributors in a Chicago mayor's race, saying he was embarrassed to accept their $5,000 checks because they were $25,000 kind of guys. No, the definitive Rahm Emanuel story takes place in Little Rock, Ark., in the heady days after Bill Clinton was first elected President.

"It was there that Emanuel, then Clinton's chief fund-raiser, repaired with George Stephanopoulos, Mandy Grunwald and other aides to Doe's, the campaign hangout. Revenge was heavy in the air as the group discussed the enemies - Democrats, Republicans, members of the press - who wronged them during the 1992 campaign. Clifford Jackson, the ex-friend of the President and peddler of the Clinton draft-dodging stories, was high on the list. So was William Donald Schaefer, then the Governor of Maryland and a Democrat who endorsed George Bush. Nathan Landow, the fund-raiser who backed the candidacy of Paul Tsongas, made it, too.

"Suddenly Emanuel grabbed his steak knife and, as those who were there remember it, shouted out the name of another enemy, lifted the knife, then brought it down with full force into the table.

"'Dead!' he screamed.

"The group immediately joined in the cathartic release: 'Nat Landow! Dead! Cliff Jackson! Dead! Bill Schaefer! Dead!'"

Joshua Green wrote in Rolling Stone in 2005: "Emanuel was the political brains of Bill Clinton's White House. Intense to the point of ferocity, he was known for taking on the most daunting tasks -- the ones no one else wanted -- and pulling off the seemingly impossible, from banning assault weapons to beating back the Republican-led impeachment. 'Clinton loved Rahm,' recalls one staffer, 'because he knew that if he asked Rahm to do something, he would move Heaven and Earth -- not necessarily in that order -- to get it done.'"

Steve Hendrix opened his 2006 profile of Emanuel for The Washington Post by describing how he ate a corned beef sandwich: "Sitting in a South Side deli, Rahm Emanuel doesn't so much eat his lunch as overwhelm it with two hands and a hard stare. It's a combat glower familiar to the political opponents, reluctant donors and more than a few allies who have encountered the White House fixer-turned-Democratic-congressman in his still-young career. By most accounts, they usually didn't fare much better than the sandwich."

And that story featured a quote from a little-known senator at the time: "'He's a great strategist, but I actually think he cares more about the policy side of it,' says Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who is close to Emanuel and is campaigning with him for several [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] candidates in the final weeks. 'He likes to talk tough, but deep under that crusty exterior is someone who believes that government can make a difference in people's lives.'"

Bush and Race

Bush genuinely appeared to take pride in the historic election of an African American president in his Rose Garden remarks yesterday.

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "In a warm statement yesterday praising the election of Democrat Barack Obama, President Bush made a point of highlighting the historic importance of the moment to African Americans and other minority groups.

"Obama's victory 'represents a triumph of the American story,' Bush said, and illustrates the 'strides we have made toward a more perfect union.' . . .

"The gracious words came from a president who entered office pledging to reach out to African Americans, Latinos and other ethnic groups that had long eluded the Republican Party, even as they made up a growing portion of the electorate. Bush appointed a record number of minorities to senior posts, pushed through changes in education law aimed in large part at minority children, and unsuccessfully pushed to rewrite immigration law.

"But such efforts do not appear to have had a lasting impact on the makeup of the Republican Party. . . .

"'He came up woefully short,' said Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP Washington bureau, referring to Bush's record with African Americans and other minorities. 'Even though he appointed a number of people from certain minority groups, they didn't seem to focus on the real challenges faced by those groups.'"

Johanna Neuman blogs for the Los Angeles Times: "True, he appointed popular retired Gen. Colin Powell to his Cabinet, making him the first black secretary of State in history.

"He installed Condoleezza Rice as his national security advisor (another first) and then, in his second term, as Powell's successor at State.

"And, in what may emerge as his singular humanitarian achievement, Bush spearheaded a massive program to help stop the spread of AIDS in Africa.

"But the war in Iraq was deeply unpopular among African Americans. His judicial appointments were seen as hostile acts. Mostly, Bush has never recovered from the flawed government response to Hurricane Katrina."

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann asked Newsweek's Richard Wolffe about Bush's sincerity last night:

Olbermann: "[H]e seemed to be expressing a genuine admiration, even a pride in the Obama victory... It would be hard to fake that. Was it genuine? If it was genuine, why was he not upset by what was contained in the decision last night, this electorate's utter repudiation of his entire eight years in office?"

Wolffe: "Yes. I know they don't look at it inside the West Wing as saying, well, you know, it's a great stride for this country that we messed it up enough so that an African-American president could be elected.

"You know, I was speaking to a number of White House officials about this and it does seem very genuine. You've got to understand a couple of things, set aside everything that's happened over the last eight years for a minute, but here's a president who did appoint one of the most, if not the most, diverse cabinets in American history, two African-American secretaries of states. He likes to think of himself as being very open-minded particularly on issues of race. And, I think, there is a genuine admiration for what Obama has been able to achieve here."

More Grace

Bush today held what looked almost like a goodbye party on the South Lawn with members of his White House staff. Here's what he told them:

"No matter how we cast our ballots, this election gives us all reason to be proud of our democracy and our country. And I hope you will join Laura and me in congratulating President-elect Obama and wishing him the very best for his family and our country. . . .

"This peaceful transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of a true democracy and ensuring that this transition is as smooth as possible is a priority for the rest of my presidency. We face economic challenges that will not pause to let a new president settle in. This will also be America's first wartime presidential transition in four decades. We're in a struggle against violent extremists determined to attack us, and they would like nothing more than to exploit this period of change to harm the American people. So for the next 75 days, all of us must ensure that the next president and his team can hit the ground running."

Bush also announced that he and Obama would be meeting next week. Nedra Pickler writes for the Associated Press that Obama "and his wife, Michelle, will visit the White House on Monday at President Bush's invitation, aides said."

Transition Watch

Anne E. Kornblut and David Cho write in The Washington Post that Obama aides "announced the first details of an ambitious plan for the transfer of power when he assumes office in January. . . .

"[I]n bureaucracies across the government, federal agency chiefs ordered their staffs to welcome the next president's aides and to begin preparing for an influx of appointees, a process that will place special emphasis on the departments of Treasury and Defense at a time when the nation is waging two wars and attempting to stave off further economic decline."

Warren Christopher, who was Clinton's transition director in 1992, writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed: "Obama's key economic and foreign policy advisors should be selected by Dec. 1 and confirmed promptly after the inauguration. Congress should recognize the urgency of filling these posts and accelerate the confirmation process.

"The important sub-Cabinet-level appointees should be identified by inauguration day or soon after. The Bush administration had only 30% of its national security appointees in place nearly eight months after inauguration. In these times, such a lapse should not be repeated.

"Major policy agendas should be agreed on, legislation prepared and executive orders drafted -- all before the inauguration. It is a crucial time to set priorities and to demonstrate that key campaign promises will be fulfilled.

"One line, however, should not be crossed. The nation can have only one president at a time. The president-elect should not take responsibility for, nor appear to endorse, decisions that are properly those of the incumbent. This is especially true with an outgoing administration that seems bent on making profound and troubling last-minute changes in the rules and regulations affecting civil liberties, abortion rights and the environment."

The Undoing

Second on Time Magazine writer Michael Grunwald's list of five ways Obama could get America back on track is: "Repeal Bush.

"Obama can't undo the last eight years, but he can serve notice on Day One that the Bush Administration is really, really over. He could start by reversing Bush's regulatory efforts to weaken federal oversight of mining, housing, drilling, finance and other favored industries. He could offer the middle class much needed relief by proposing quickly to restore Clinton-era upper-income tax rates and reduce the tax burden for everyone else. He could drop Bush's legal battles to block California from enhancing its environmental protections. The End of the National Nightmare Executive Order could also include: No more torture. No more 'threat levels' designed to make people freak out about unnamed dangers. No more 'signing statements' declaring executive prerogative to ignore laws the President doesn't like. No more firing prosecutors for failing to go along with a political agenda. And while he's at it: No more timber lobbyists running the Forest Service, oil lobbyists editing climate reports, Wall Street lobbyists running the sec or Arabian-horse commissioners running anything. (Sorry, Brownie.)"

But as Adam Nagourney and Jim Rutenberg write in the New York Times: "President-elect Barack Obama has begun an effort to tamp down what his aides fear are unusually high expectations among his supporters, and will remind Americans regularly throughout the transition that the nation's challenges are substantial and will take time to address. . . .

"[A]ides said they were looking to temper hopes that he would be able to solve the nation's problems or fully reverse Bush administration policies quickly and easily, especially given the prospect of a deep and long-lasting recession.

"'We have talked about this,' said Robert Gibbs, a senior adviser to Mr. Obama. 'It's important that everybody understands that this is not going to happen overnight. There has to be a realistic expectation of what can happen and how quickly. . . .

"'The flip side of this -- and I want to make sure this is also clear -- we also believe that it is paramount to begin doing everything we said we would do in the campaign,' Mr. Gibbs said. 'We know expectations are high. But disappointment if we didn't try to do the things that we said we were going to do would be far, far greater than anything else. People went to the polls and elected Barack Obama because they believed the fact not only that he could do what he said, but that he would try to do what he said.'"

Some Immediate Challenges

Abdul Waheed Wafa and Mark McDonald write in the New York Times: "An airstrike by United States-led forces killed 40 civilians and wounded 28 others at a wedding party in Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan, Afghan officials said Wednesday. The casualties included women and children, the officials said. . . .

"The reports of the strike, in a region that has become a renewed front line in the battle against the Taliban, showed the raw tensions between the United States and Afghanistan over the toll suffered by civilians in the war. . . .

"The reports recall an assault in August in western Afghanistan that was initially disputed by the United States, in which an American gunship killed at least 30 civilians. On Wednesday, at a news conference called to congratulate Mr. Obama, President Hamid Karzai said his first request to Mr. Obama would be 'to end the civilian casualties.'"

Ellen Barry and Sophia Kishkovsky write in the New York Times: "President Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia greeted his future American counterpart, Senator Barack Obama, with bristling language on Wednesday, promising to place short-range missiles on Russia's western border if Washington proceeded with its planned missile defense system in Eastern Europe."

Opinion Watch

Timothy Egan blogs for the New York Times: "This was the first real 21st century election -- rejecting the incompetence of the Bush years, the race-baiting of Karl Rove's majority strategy and the poison of media-driven wedge politics. As a nation, we rejoin the world community. As a sustaining narrative, we found our story again. . . .

"See the trend: new, emerging, growing, tomorrow, young. Dormant for the darkest years of the Bush presidency, the oldest strain of American DNA is evident again. . . .

"One of the better lines in Obama's election night speech was a slap to the rejectionist politics of Bush. Rove always insisted a president only needed 50 percent plus one to win. And Bush governed that way, permanently angering half the population.

"On Tuesday night, Obama reached out to the other half. For those who did not vote for him, he said, 'I will be your president, too.'

"What an idea -- simple and obvious. But like so much American common sense, it's been missing for too long."

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column that Obama "has the chance to make the White House pristine again."

Washington's monuments "have lost their luminescence in recent years," Dowd writes.

"How could the White House be inspiring when W. and Cheney were inside making torture and domestic spying legal, fooling Americans by cooking up warped evidence for war and scheming how to further enrich their buddies in the oil and gas industry?

"How could the Lincoln Memorial -- 'With malice toward none; with charity for all' -- be as moving if the black neighborhoods of a charming American city were left to drown while the president mountain-biked?

"How can the National Archives, home of the Constitution, be as momentous if the president and vice president spend their days redacting the Constitution?

"How can the black marble V of the Vietnam Memorial have power when those in power repeat the mistake of Vietnam?"

Roger Cohen writes in his New York Times opinion column: "Beyond Iraq, beyond the economy, beyond health care, there was something even more fundamental at stake in this U.S. election won by Barack Obama: the self-respect of the American people.

"For almost eight years, Americans have seen words stripped of meaning, lives sacrificed to confront nonexistent Iraqi weapons and other existences ravaged by serial incompetence on an epic scale. . . .

"You can't proclaim freedom as you torture. You can't promote democracy as you disappear people. You can't stand for the rule of law and strip prisoners of basic rights. You can't dispense with the transparency and regulation essential to modern capital markets and hope still to be the beacon of free enterprise.

"Or rather, you can do all these things, but then you find yourself alone.

"Obama will reinvest words with meaning. That is the basis of everything. And an American leader able to improvise a grammatical, even a moving, English sentence is no bad thing. Americans, in the inevitable recession ahead, will have a leader who can summon their better natures rather than speak, as Bush has, to their spite."

Economy Watch

Martin Crutsinger writes for the Associated Press: "At a time when most administrations are slowing down, the Bush White House appears to be speeding up -- at least when it comes to getting the $700 billion financial rescue program up and running.

"Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, President Bush's point man on the gigantic program, is pushing his staff to do everything possible to show markets that the government is getting the money out the door to bolster the financial system and get banks to resume more normal lending."

Jeannine Aversa writes for the Associated Press: "The Bush administration is hopeful that world leaders, at a summit in Washington next week, will adopt an action plan singling out some short-term steps that could be taken to deal with the current financial crisis as well as prevent similar problems from happening again. . . .

"Europeans -- led by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- are seeking ambitious regulatory reforms coordinated among countries to prevent a repeat of similar housing, credit and financial debacles that are now imperiling the economies of the United States and the world."

But as Aversa writes: "While the White House . . . believes leaders will be able to find some common ground . . . there is little appetite in the waning days of the administration for overhauling financial regulations."

Lori Montgomery writes in The Washington Post: "When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) moves into the White House in January, he will inherit a stratospheric budget deficit, a collapsing financial system and the gloomiest economic outlook since the Great Depression. The silver lining? For a few months, at least, he will have a license to spend money."

Rove's Dream Dashed

Alec MacGillis and Jon Cohen write in The Washington Post: "After President Bush's reelection in 2004, top strategist Karl Rove proclaimed the arrival of a permanent Republican majority. Just four years later, the results from Sen. Barack Obama's definitive victory suggest that the opposite may be underway.

"The Democrats appear to have built a majority across a wide, and expanding, share of the electorate -- young voters, Hispanics and other ethnic minorities, and highly educated whites in growing metropolitan areas. The Republicans appear at the moment to be marginalized, hanging on to a coalition that may shrink with time -- older, working-class and rural white voters, increasingly concentrated in the Deep South, the Great Plains and Appalachia. . . .

"'It is a problem for Republicans. As they continue to cater to their culturally conservative rural base, they continue to alienate educated voters,' said Rep. Tom Davis, who is retiring and whose Fairfax County district was taken over by the Democrats on Tuesday."

WHAS-TV in Louisville interviewed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who himself was only barely reelected Tuesday. He blamed the bad night on Bush: "I think anytime you lose an election you go back and analyze it and figure out what happened. I think it's pretty clear that having a very unpopular president is not helpful in an election. I think we can stipulate that."

Exodus Watch

In his remarks to White House staffers this morning, Bush joked lamely: "As January 20th draws near, some of you may be anxious about finding a new job or a new place to live. I know how you feel."

Then he reminded them: "But between now and then we must keep our attention on the task at hand, because the American people expect no less."

But as it happens, Tim Reid writes for the Times of London: "Many of President Bush's 3,000 political appointees are struggling to find jobs as they leave office because of the ailing economy and a lack of desire among some employees to hire people from an administration with a reputation for incompetence and cronyism.

"Mr Bush himself is fine."

So are: Condoleezza Rice, his Secretary of State, who "is set to become a political science professor and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution think-tank, run by Stanford University, where she was Provost before joining the Bush administration.

"Dick Cheney, after 40 years in Washington, hinted earlier this year that he might write a book after leaving the vice-presidency. He is expected to go into semi-retirement, and spend more time with his fly-fishing rod. He is a passionate angler.

"Yet many lower-level members of the Administration are finding the job market tough. Traditionally, the legions of outgoing troops from a departing government flock to Wall Street, or into Washington think-tanks or lobbying firms. Members of Bill Clinton's team had little difficulty landing post-government employment."

Book Watch

Bush is expected to rake in piles of money giving speeches. But his memoirs may not be worth much yet.

Hillel Italie writes for the Associated Press: "In less than three months, President-elect Barack Obama will take office and the Bush administration will belong to history. With the president reportedly interested in writing about his White House years, publishers have a suggestion:

"Take your time.

"'If I were advising President Bush, given how the public feels about him right now, I think patience would probably be something that I would encourage,' says Paul Bogaards, executive director of publicity for Alfred A. Knopf, which in 2004 released Bill Clinton's million-selling 'My Life.'

"'Certainly the longer he waits, the better,' says Marji Ross, president and publisher of the conservative Regnery Publishing, which is more likely to take on anti-Obama books in the next few years than any praises of Bush.

"'There's a pent-up frustration among conservatives that will focus their attention on a Barack Obama presidency and lead them to buy a lot of books about Barack Obama. But that's not the kind of emotion that anyone is going to use to turn to reading a memoir by a conservative president.'

"In a poor economy, it's not a great time for anyone to shop a book, and certainly not for a deeply unpopular president."

Cartoon Watch

Pat Bagley on the Bush gag, Tony Auth on an impatient nation, Mike Keefe on Bush's housewarming gift, Signe Wilkinson on passing the torch, Tom Stiglich on history, and Mike Luckovich on Day One.

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