A Science Fictional Presidency: “Rahmbo” as Chief of Staff

Barack Obama, the new President-Elect of the United States, has chosen Rahm Emanuel as his White House Chief of Staff.

This is a new one to some people, for Rahm Emanuel is, as they say, intense. In some ways he’s the opposite of the cool and serene Barack Obama—Emanuel can be, and often has been, loudly-and-in-your-face confrontational. There’s the following cute story, recapped in Rolling Stones “The Enforcer”:

And there’s the story of how, 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.”

O horrors! Obama has chosen a real S.O.B. as his White House Chief of Staff! Love and peace is doomed already in the presidency!

Not. This is actually a pretty sensible choice by Obama, because while Emanuel is undoubtedly hot-tempered, he uses that temper constructively. That’s one laser-focused staff member of pure unmediated anger most people on the Hill do not want to get in the way of. In other words, sometimes you need a bastard. And the position of White House Chief of Staff is one of them.

In many ways, Rahm Emanuel reminds me of Samuel Vimes of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. ((I call science-fiction on Discworld’s genre.)) He’s extremely direct, street-smart (or, rather, Hill-smart) and cunning, and sometimes described as being as tenuous as an attack dog. If he had to choose between being carried to work and walking, he’d choose walking. People can choose to see him as merely a thug—but they’d be making one of the biggest mistakes of their political careers. He is combative, argumentative, and tells the truth often enough to be unfashionable. He’s managed to recruit and organize more than 30 members of his own kind. He won’t sugar-coat anything for anybody, not even his own boss. Sometimes he wakes up and hates himself, though I suspect to others he under-reports this.

That’s actually both of them I’m describing. Although in Sam Vimes’ case it was an axe and he didn’t use nearly that many words to express what he felt. ((Feet of Clay.)) Some might argue that Sam Vimes is actually a much easier man to work with, but that’s because Vimes is a point of view in most of the books he’s in. With notable exceptions like The Truth and Monstrous Regiment, where we see him from the outside—and that is a bastard.

Of course the thought crossed my mind: does Emanuel play Vimes to Obama’s… Vetinari?

Actually, that’s an interesting question to consider. I’ll leave others to play with the meaning of Vetinari’s coat of arms, but Obama certainly fits the Vetinari mold in some ways: calm when everyone else is losing their heads, the eerily smooth running of a revolutionary ground game, a high level of discipline, even a certain sparseness in the way he eats—unlike many candidates, he never gained the “campaign 15”. ((According to Newsweek’s “The Long Siege”, “Reporters joked that if he ate a single bite of burger or pancake once the doors of his dark-tinted SUV closed, they’d eat their BlackBerrys.”)) But instead of wielding fear as his method for getting people to cooperate, Obama wields a fearfully high level of charisma, somewhere around Carrot levels. ((You know, maybe this is more of a Vimes/Carrot dynamic were Carrot to inherit Vetinari’s position.))

Obama is also a much more rounded personality; he has a family he truly loves, and a wife he cares for deeply. ((He gave her veto power on whether he entered and stayed in the race. She told him he’d have to quit smoking. And he did.)) Vetinari has neither and remains cold and distant at all times. Still, this is the kind of delicious irony that Pratchett loves to introduce in his characters, and if he ever gets around to covering more of Vetinari’s incidental background, I suspect there would be something as surprising.

So: it’s not really Obama and Emanuel up there. ((Okay, it is. Bear with me. I’m having a Blogging MomentTM.)) It’s Vetinari and Vimes, a relationship that goes beyond “good cop, bad cop” and into Machiavellian territory. In other words: it’s just good politics.

West Wing Note: Josh Lyman is based on Rahm Emanuel. In fact, once Emanuel got to watch The West Wing for some episodes and realized this, he called his younger brother, a Hollywood talent agent, and said, “Hey, I finally saw the show, and you know what? I like that guy better than I like you.”

I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from the Rolling Stones article:

“We get into this stupid argument every four years: centrists vs. leftists,” [Emanuel] says. “That is not the argument today. It is change vs. status quo. In 1992, Bill Clinton was a change agent — he won. In 1994, Newt Gingrich was a change agent — he won. In 1996, Bill Clinton was a change agent to Dole and Gingrich — he won. In 1998, Democrats represented a change from the Republican drive for impeachment — they won. In 2000, George Bush was a credible change agent. In 2002, Democrats failed to convey change — and they lost. I want to be about change and reform to the Republican status quo.”

Addendum: And here’s Newsweek’s “Inside Obama’s Pick for White House Chief of Staff. From Senator Lindsey Graham, one of McCain’s close friends:

“When we hit a rough spot, he always looked for a path forward. I consider Rahm to be a friend and colleague. He’s tough but fair. Honest, direct, and candid. These qualities will serve President-elect Obama well.”

Addendum: From Noam Scheiber at The Stump‘s “Rahm was the Only Choice, Not Just the Right Choice”, Emanuel shares with Vimes a down-to-earth quality:

And, having successfully run the DCCC, the House Democrats’ campaign arm, he knows how to harness the power of voters in every corner of the country

This last point is especially key (though, again, not enough on its own). As we point out in our introduction to the power list, Obama has built the most powerful and sophisticated grassroots infrastructure of any presidential candidate in history. Not only would it be a shame not to exploit it to enact Obama’s policy agenda. Given the potential opposition to something like healthcare reform, it’s hard to see how it gets passed without using that infrastructure. .

Addendum: From Smith & Harris at Politico‘s “Emanuel pick sends powerful signal”, with a description that sounds much like a certain modern Stoneface Vimes:

“He’s from the Lombardi wing of the party — he’s a guy who wants to win at any cost and will do whatever it takes,” said John Lapp, a former top Emanuel aide at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Lapp called Emanuel “the best possible pick — a perfectionist and fighter who loves the president[-elect] like a brother.”

If so, he’s a sibling who long ago showed he knows how to talk back in the family. As a longtime aide to Bill Clinton, Emanuel was known for his willingness to talk bluntly to colleagues from the president on down.

2 thoughts on “A Science Fictional Presidency: “Rahmbo” as Chief of Staff

  1. I suspect, however, if Carrot were to ever inherit Vetinari’s position, Vimes would have to take up the family axe.

  2. I have no idea if that’s true or not. It seems it would be the case, but positions aren’t people. I suspect Mister Vimes would be smart enough to realize that.

    After all, he’s a duke, even if it was due to his wife twisting his arm when Vetinari offered.

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