First Lady Michelle Obama and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speak during an… (Terrence Antonio James…)
A new book paints Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as an often divisive White House chief of staff who pushed pragmatism over rigid policy ideals and sought to avoid First Lady Michelle Obama.
Washington politics tend to require meticulous planning, but Emanuel appeared to be winging it — focusing on day-to-day concerns at the expense of the long-term, according to the book "The Obamas" by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor.
There was no set agenda during Emanuel’s 7:30 a.m. meetings for top staffers, according to Kantor, who wrote that, “it often seemed driven by what was in the newspaper that morning.”
“Even Emanuel’s allies admitted his style was scattered: ‘schizophrenia’ as one said. His philosophy was to put a ‘point on the board’ meaning some small advance or victory, each day, to eventually win the match,” Kantor writes.
The book’s portrayal of Emanuel stands in contrast to the controlled and calibrated image he has tried to project in his opening months as mayor.
Emanuel is not the focus of “The Obamas,” a book about the first couple’s first years in the White House, but he plays an significant supporting role.
On paper, everyone in the West Wing reported to Emanuel, who reported to the president. In reality, Kantor writes, there were several power centers competing for access and influence, including Emanuel, Vice President Joe Biden, and senior advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett.
After the midterm election in 2010, it was clear Obama “needed a more traditional structure, with a streamlined decision-making process flowing through a chief of staff who had true authority,” according to the book.
One of Obama’s first major decisions was tapping Emanuel as chief of staff. Unlike his boss, Emanuel was combative, unafraid to push or even insult, Kantor writes.
“Emanuel was restless, sly, casually abusive, and almost always willing to cut a deal,” according to the book. “He could yell at you and eat a brownie off your plate at the same time.”
Emanuel, however, had learned lessons during his time in President Clinton’s White House: “Avoid symbolic issues and ideological battles.” Hillary Rodham Clinton also taught him another one: “Stay out of the first lady’s way.”
Emanuel did not always appear to heed that when it came to Michelle Obama. There were occasions when he’d make a commitment on the first lady’s behalf without consulting her first.
The first lady also had her doubts about Emanuel. The two were philosophical and temperamental contrasts who had almost no bond, Kantor writes, and their relationship was “distant and awkward from the beginning.”
Asked Monday about the book’s accounts, Emanuel said: “I have a very good relationship with the president and the first lady.”
Emanuel recounted that he and his wife, Amy Rule, attended a private party at the White House residence a few weeks ago. And in October during a visit to Chicago, Michelle Obama helped promote Emanuel’s effort to reduce “food deserts,” areas lacking access to fresh produce and grocery stores.
“I talked to the president on Saturday,” Emanuel said at an unrelated news conference. “I’ve been very honored to work with the president and the first lady as chief of staff.”
It was the president’s decision to pursue a healthcare overhaul despite Emanuel’s objections that seemed to mark the beginning of the end of Emanuel’s tenure in the White House, according to Kantor.
Several news stories appeared with the angle that Emanuel disagreed with his boss on the issue. After one piece in March 2010, Emanuel went to the Oval Office to apologize to the president. As the two men talked alone, Emanuel offered his resignation, Kantor writes.
Asked Monday to confirm that he tendered his resignation, Emanuel neither confirmed nor denied. “That’s been old news,” he said.
By that September, Emanuel was plotting his departure from the White House to return home to run for mayor. Obama offered a gracious public goodbye for his chief of staff that ended up appearing in Emanuel’s campaign ads.