Obama’s chief of fixing

November 12, 2008

Elizabeth Schulte examines the record of Barack Obama's choice for chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

IN THE world of Washington insider politics, it's not what you know, it's who you know. And Rahm Emanuel is a prime example.

When Barack Obama announced that Emanuel was his pick for chief of staff, he selected a seasoned power broker with decades of experience maneuvering in the halls of government--in other words, the opposite of the change from the status quo that many Obama supporters hope and expect.

As a part of the Clinton administration, Emanuel helped shape the administration's "New Democrat" policies--positions that were designed to distance the Democratic Party from its base among the unions and social movement organizations. The New Democrats in the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) drove the Clinton-era policies of promoting corporate power and cutting away at government programs that benefited the poor.

The destruction of welfare, the North American Free Trade Agreement, two crime bills that fueled the American incarceration binge--Emanuel had a hand in all of them.

Clinton, Emanuel and the DLC's aim was to remake the Democratic Party's relationship to Corporate America after the era of liberalism ebbed during the Reagan presidency. And in large part, they were successful.

Rahm Emanuel will be Barack Obama's White House chief of staff
Rahm Emanuel will be Barack Obama's White House chief of staff


THE STORY of Emanuel's ascendancy is a tangle of favors and fundraising. Emanuel got his job in the Clinton White House after raising some $71 million for Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. And he got that job via the connections he made in Chicago machine politics.

Emanuel got a job fundraising for Mayor Richard M. Daley, after working on several campaigns, including Paul Simon's, alongside David Wilhelm, who would later manage Clinton's campaign.

By 1989, he was Daley's chief money man. Emanuel emerged in the thick of Chicago Democratic Party politics as the old establishment, regrouped around the former Mayor Richard J. Daley's son, was reasserting its control following Harold Washington's time in the mayor's office, beginning with his election in 1983 as the first Black mayor of the city.

Emanuel recalled to the Chicago Reader in 2002 that he voted for Daley over Washington in the 1983 Democratic primary.

Clinton hired Emanuel to work in the White House as a strategist in his war room, which included George Stephanopoulos, James Carville and Paul Begala. He got the reputation as a man who wouldn't take no for an answer. As Rolling Stone magazine reported:

...the night after Clinton was elected, Emanuel was so angry at the president's enemies that he stood up at a celebratory dinner with colleagues from the campaign, grabbed a steak knife and began rattling off a list of betrayers, shouting "Dead!...Dead!...Dead!" and plunging the knife into the table after every name. "When he was done, the table looked like a lunar landscape," one campaign veteran recalls. "It was like something out of The Godfather. But that's Rahm for you."

After his Clinton years, Emanuel got a job as an investment banker, despite the fact he'd never worked in a bank. "Putting together deals--arranging mergers and acquisitions, which is essentially what an investment banker does--is not unlike overseeing the passage of legislation," he told the Reader. "You bring people together. You keep them talking. You learn when a no really could mean a yes."

Corporate mergers, welfare reform, whatever.

During two years in the banking game, Emanuel made $16.2 million. He also served on the board of Freddie Mac, which the SEC last year charged with accounting fraud for the years 1998-2002, which overlap with Emanuel's time there.

Daley handed him vice chairmanship on the board of the Chicago Housing Authority, where affordable housing for the poor in the city has either fallen into neglect and disrepair, or been pushed aside for so-called "mixed income" housing for the up and coming. Emanuel also sat on the boards of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and Slim-Fast, whose founder, S. Daniel Abraham, is a major Democratic donor.

After winning a seat in Congress representing Illinois' 5th District in Chicago in 2002, Emanuel soon became head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).

He did what he was good at--raise money. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, in his six years in Congress, Emanuel has raised $1.5 million in campaign donations from Wall Street employees.

Dubbed the Machiavelli of the 5th District, he set out to make his mark on the Democratic Congress. In keeping with his New Democrat philosophy, Emanuel pushed for several conservative Democratic candidates who wouldn't take up issues like the war on Iraq. According to his thinking, they would appeal to center-right "swing" voters and unseat Republicans. Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth in Illinois (who lost) and former football player Heath Shuler in North Carolina (who won) were among them.

Shuler would show how willing he was to "reach across the aisle" when he worked with Republicans, including bigot Tom Tancredo, to cosponsor the anti-immigrant SAVE (Secure America with Verification and Enforcement) Act earlier this year.


IF OBAMA wanted to send a clear message to supporters of Israel not to worry, the appointment of Emanuel is it.

During the first Gulf War, Emanuel volunteered to help maintain Israeli army vehicles near the Lebanon border when Southern Lebanon was occupied by Israeli forces. In Congress, he stood as a loyal supporter of Israel's apartheid state.

As Ali Abunimah pointed out on the Electronic Intifada Web site:

In Congress, Emanuel has been a consistent and vocal pro-Israel hardliner, sometimes more so than President Bush.

In June 2003, for example, he signed a letter criticizing Bush for being insufficiently supportive of Israel. "We were deeply dismayed to hear your criticism of Israel for fighting acts of terror," Emanuel, along with 33 other Democrats wrote to Bush. The letter said that Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinian political leaders "was clearly justified as an application of Israel's right to self-defense."

Emanuel called the Lebanese and Palestinian governments "totalitarian entities with militias and terrorists acting as democracies" in a July 2006 speech supporting a House resolution backing Israel's bombing of those countries.

Emanuel's father--who was a member of the Zionist terrorist group Irgun that carried out attacks against Palestinian and British civilians in the 1940s--summed up what his son's appointment would mean for racists like himself. As the Jerusalem Post reported:

In an interview with Ma'ariv, Emanuel's father, Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, said he was convinced that his son's appointment would be good for Israel. "Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel," he was quoted as saying. "Why wouldn't he be? What is he, an Arab? He's not going to clean the floors of the White House."

Emanuel supported the 2002 Iraq war resolution. He is a hawk against Iran. He voted in favor of making the Patriot Act permanent. But whether the policies of Rahm Emanuel and the rest of the New Democrat mafia are the future for the Obama era will depend largely on what kind of opposition that activists build--based on the idea that change is not only possible but has to be fought for.

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