Obama’s apparent selection of Rahm Emanuel for White House chief of staff is an extremely disconcerting (if not wholly surprising) first indication on the “which Obama will we get” question. It suggests both that he wants to be ruthless and partisan and that he does not have a clear sense of how the White House works.
Emanuel was by all accounts a very effective White House staffer in the Clinton administration, and he has certainly been an effective member of the House of Representatives. He is smart and tough. But he has been, in both positions, a vicious graceless partisan: narrow, hectic, unremittingly aggressive, vulgar, and impatient. Those who have worked for and with him come away impressed but not inspired, and generally not loyal.
The White House chief of staff is not a chief strategist or a chief advocate. He is a manager of people and of process. Above all else, he sets the tone internally, and shapes the president’s decision process and the feel of the upper tiers of the administration. Obama is especially in need of someone who will lead him to decisions, because he appears to be intensely averse to making difficult choices—which is the essence of what the president does. His inclination is to step back and conceptualize the choice out of existence, looking reasonable but doing nothing. To overcome this, he will need a chief of staff with a sense of the gravity of the choices the president faces, and one capable of moving the staff to decision, keeping big egos satisfied and calm, and resisting the pressure to be purely reactive to momentary distractions. None of this spells Rahm Emanuel. There is definitely a place for a Rahm Emanuel type of brilliant ruthless shark in a White House staff, but not in the Chief’s office. Not a good first sign.