It was the last Sunday in November, and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was in the Oval Office for a meeting of special gravity. After reviews with his national security team, military commanders, civilian leaders in Afghanistan and other nations — a process overseen by Emanuel — President Obama was finalizing his Afghanistan policy. Two days later, Obama would be at West Point announcing that he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan — but after 18 months the soldiers would begin to come home.
Besides Obama and Emanuel, the group included Vice President Joe Biden; Defense Secretary Robert Gates; Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Gen. David Petraeus, Central Command chief, and Gen. James Jones, the White House national security adviser. Joining via video conference was Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, and Karl Eikenberry, the ambassador to Afghanistan.
The day, Nov. 29, was Chicago-born Emanuel’s 50th birthday.
Did Obama know? He did.
“I tormented the president about it,” Emanuel said playfully.
This Wednesday marks the end of Obama’s first year in office. I talked with Emanuel about his 12 months as chief of staff in his spacious West Wing office last Monday.
He is finishing up a lunch of sea bass. The walls and shelves feature more than two dozen pictures of his family. Logs are burning in his fireplace. There are three books on a nearby table garnished with an arrangement of red roses: Chicago, a Photographic Tour; The Rise of Barack Obama and In Classic Style, the Splendor of American Ballet Theatre, a nod, I figured, to the days when he studied ballet.
Emanuel is a superpower in Washington, the gatekeeper to the Oval Office who keeps tabs on White House policy, politics and personnel. He has been deeply involved in congressional battles over the stimulus spending, health care and reform of the financial system that led the nation to the brink of a depression.
His days can be grueling. On Thursday, he arrived at the White House a little after 7 a.m. and did not leave until after 1:30 a.m. Friday, enmeshed in marathon talks over the health-care reform bill. After what may well have been his longest day as chief of staff, he was back at his desk less than six hours later.
On most days, he works out before he arrives at the White House about 7 a.m. He swims three days a week. Twice a week, he’s at the House gym, where he rides a stationary bike for 25 minutes, works out on an elliptical machine for 15 minutes and does about 125 sit-ups, 50 push-ups and a weight routine. On weekends, he runs 3.5 miles and takes a yoga class.
Obama tapped him for chief of staff just after Emanuel was re-elected to his fourth term in Congress from a Chicago-anchored district. This is his second White House stint; Emanuel was a top adviser to former President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1999.
He said the “hard transition, though I knew it going in, though your memory somewhat gets hazy as time goes on, is the loss of self-control, where you can sort of pick and choose what you want to do, what you want to focus on.”
The job does weigh on him. I was told Emanuel returns e-mails around the clock. Although he’s in bed most nights at 10 p.m. and up at 5 a.m., “I don’t sleep through the night. No. Well, you can’t,” Emanuel told me. He added later in the interview: “I am not sure in Congress I slept either. This is a lot more stressful because of where you sit, it just is.”
He’s not complaining. Most hard decisions are not between good and bad alternatives. “In the White House, the choices you make are between bad and worse, and they are usually on a time frame of essential and immediate.”
While in Congress, Emanuel championed importing prescription drugs from other countries, and he wanted the government to negotiate prescription prices for Medicare recipients. While he has been chief of staff, the White House cut a deal with drug companies not to allow Medicare price negotiations. And Emanuel watched as a drug import plan was blocked from the health-care reform bill in order to win a crucial Senate vote. “It was a way of getting that done,” he said. He added he would not deny there was a “level of irony” in the situation.
There is another side, he notes. As a congressman, he had to beg the Bush White House for money for a barrier to block the Asian carp from Lake Michigan; Obama’s Recovery Act included $25 million to fight the invasive fish.
Emanuel has a celebrated tough-guy persona and a reputation for using profane language. On display in his office is a plaque that reads “Undersecretary of Go F – – – Yourself.”
People who work around him say he has mellowed, and I asked him if that was true. All those profiles about Emanuel sending a dead fish to a consultant are the product of “people doing lazy stuff, in my view, in reporting,” he said.
Still impatient, Emanuel said he has changed. “I’m more open to hearing from other people than I would have been before.” Part of that comes, he said, from having three children: Zachariah, 12; Ilana, 11, and Leah, 9.
Emanuel’s wife, Amy, and the kids moved from their North Side home to Washington last summer. Over the recent holidays, the family traveled to India; they go overseas every year. “We try to make sure the kids see something different.”
Emanuel is one of three overachieving brothers raised in Wilmette. One brother, Ari, is a Hollywood superagent, while the oldest, Ezekiel, is an oncologist and bioethicist who works on health policy at the White House. Last year, Ezekiel Emanuel — a former West Rogers Park resident — was smeared by Republicans and accused of advocating the so-called death panels during the peak of the health-care debate. Emanuel said his brother took the punch but “it was hard for him. . . . He had never been in politics before.”
Although their father was born in Israel, last year there were reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Rahm Emanuel and Obama’s senior adviser David Axelrod “self-hating Jews.” Asked his reaction, Emanuel said, “I don’t take that lightly,” but he noted that Netanyahu “said it was never said, and you just let it go. It’s not about me.”
In the days before our interview, chatter grew about whether Emanuel might return to Chicago to run for mayor in 2011. In the wake of the flap, Emanuel pledged to stay in the White House through 2010 and said he was not going to run for mayor or seek his old House seat.
“This is a challenging job,” he told me. “But it is not drudgery. . . . I can’t think of anything else I would rather do if you are in public policy at this particular point. There are things when you dealing with on a day-to-day basis, you are ready to sometimes pull your hair out. That said, if you are interested in public policy, and you are interested in politics, and you do believe that what we do makes a difference in people’s lives, there ain’t nothing better.”