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Rahm Emanuel: Obama's not-so-secret weapon

February 12, 2009 |  6:25 am

Obama White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel

It was a stellar victory for the White House -- a $789-billion stimulus package passing Congress in the first month of the new administration despite public qualms and Republican opposition.

Lots of folks could claim credit. President Obama, stumping in Elkhart, Ind., and Fort Myers, Fla., reminded politicians in Congress of how popular -- and skilled -- he is at making his case. Republican moderates Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Susan Collins of Maine and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania demonstrated that compromise is possible even in an age of polarization. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is getting points for pushing the bill to a majority, even as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) is losing some for failing to protect some key House-favored projects.

This is a political town, so calculating winners and losers is an occupational hazard. And in postmortems this morning, one man is getting more attention than others. As the newspaper The Hill pointed out, this victory had one man's fingerprints all over it: that of White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Emanuel, a former congressman from Chicago and former deputy chief of staff in the Clinton administration, had been reluctant to accept Obama's offer to run his White House. After all, he had a young family that had stayed in Chicago while he shuttled to Washington. And he had ambitions of his own. He aspired, some day, to be speaker of the House. That meant continuing to climb the leadership ladder in Congress. In fact, as The Swamp reported recently, some believe he will return to Chicago to reclaim his House seat after he leaves the White House.

But for now, he is working for Obama. And Emanuel, who knows the House better than most, showed his prowess during the stimulus package. First he worked to bring Blue Dog (moderate) Democrats back into the fold the day before the House vote, huddling with them in House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’s (D-Md.) hideaway off the House floor. Then last week he worked out of Reid's office, "tossing spending programs overboard until the package was light enough to support the heavy doubts of three Republican senators."

Not all of Emanuel's forays were successful. House Republicans voted in lock step against the package, a rebuff of Obama's unprecedented outreach in addressing their caucus in the very first week of his presidency. Already, reports politico.com, the liberal Americans United for Change is running radio ads in three tossup states that Obama won -- Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- accusing House Republicans of siding with Rush Limbaugh instead of the American people on the vote.

But in Washington, a win is a win, no matter how ugly, and a winner is a winner. As Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater) said of Emanuel:

"I think he’s going to go down as one of the most effective chiefs of staff for any president because of his keen understanding of this institution. He’s trusted. He’s knowledgeable. He has a sense of direction for the country."

-- Johanna Neuman

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Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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