WASHINGTON — Washington sits with bated breath as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel plots his next move – possibly, or even likely, a run for mayor of Chicago. He could announce his resignation any day now.
This creates an opportunity for President Obama. Mr. Emanuel arrived in the West Wing already a legend, a foulmouthed, shrewd, hard-charging political operative right out of central casting. He has played bad cop to Mr. Obama’s good cop. Under Emanuel’s watch, Obama got big legislation through Congress – the stimulus, health-care reform, financial reform.
Now, as Obama approaches the next phase of his presidency, he could put in place a new right-hand man (or woman) who can help him navigate the post-midterm reality: either a much-reduced Democratic majority in Congress or a Republican takeover. Obama’s choice would say something about how he intends to proceed.
“The stage where [Obama] is trying to implement a controversial agenda as quickly as possible has passed,” says Bruce Buchanan, a presidential scholar at the University of Texas, Austin. “So he’ll need someone who understands that and won’t look just like Rahm, but will look more like how you operate in a much more competitive environment. … He will need a person who will function in a broker role, rather than someone who will bang heads together like Rahm did.”
Much of the speculation over who would succeed Emanuel has focused on whether he or she is an Obama insider or an outsider. But that may be less important than the skill set this person brings to the table. The job description is daunting: enforcer, gatekeeper, public-relations voice, bearer of bad news.
It is such an exhausting job that former chiefs of staff almost uniformly say “never again” once they’ve turned in their badge. Two former Clinton chiefs of staff regularly mentioned as possible Emanuel replacements – CIA head Leon Panetta and think-tank director John Podesta – both insist they don’t want a second round.
Another option often floated is to have Obama senior adviser Pete Rouse fill the job temporarily, then appoint a longer-term replacement after the Nov. 2 midterm elections, when the new political reality on Capitol Hill is known. Mr. Rouse, who served as Obama’s chief of staff in the Senate, could walk down Pennsylvania Avenue unnoticed, and he apparently wants to keep it that way. In this media-saturated age, the quiet Rouse may be able to tolerate a few weeks as a fill-in, but probably no more.
The Washington “wise man” is another model Obama could follow. Aside from the aforementioned Messrs. Panetta and Podesta, another candidate would be former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, who knows the legislative game and is simpatico with Obama personally. Mr. Daschle was to be Obama’s health-reform czar until unpaid taxes and lobbying connections killed the idea. Those negatives may yet keep him out of the West Wing.
Then there are the super-staffers who are already part of Obama-world and could slide right up to Emanuel’s chair. The transition would be seamless, but such a choice would forgo the possibility of fresh ideas in a White House that tends toward insularity (as they all do). Aside from Rouse, two other men – Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Vice President Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain – are reportedly high in the running.
The last super-staffer worth mentioning is Valerie Jarrett, an old Obama friend from Chicago who is also a senior adviser in the White House. She has gotten some negative press lately, but she is well versed in the rough and tumble of Chicago politics, where she got her start in the 1980s. If chosen, Ms. Jarrett would be the first woman White House chief of staff.
All the above insist no, no, they don’t want to be the next chief of staff, they love what they’re doing right now and want to do it forever. But that’s the standard Washington protocol when the press inquires about openings like vice-presidential running mate and top cop at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Only when the president himself comes calling does the real answer emerge.