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The Nation

Obama's Disappointing First Choice

John Nichols

House Minority Leader John Boehner and other Republican insiders in Washington are griping about President-elect Barack Obama's selection of Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel to serve as White House chief of staff. Emanuel, they complain, is too partisan.

If only that were the case.

Partisan true believers stand strong for the ideals and principles of a party, they want to follow the dictates of the platform and stay in tune with grassroots activists.

That's not a description of Rahm Emanuel.

In fact, Emanuel is the opposite of a partisan. He is someone who has worked very hard for a very long time - first in the Clinton administration and then in Congress -- to change the Democratic party into a more cautious, centrist and compromised institution. As head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, he actually undercut efforts by progressive candidates who had a chance to win in order to advance the candidacies of more conservative candidates who lost.

Why? Because on the most vital issues--economic and trade policy, war and peace, civil liberties--this true believer in the worst compromises of the Clinton era has frequently been at odds with labor and progressive forces within the party.

So how worried should Democrats who want change they can believe in be about Obama's decision to make Emanuel the face of the transition process?

Emanuel is best understood as a disappointing choice rather than a definitional selection.

If Emanuel was in line for a key Cabinet position (Treasury, Commerce, Labor or Agriculture), or for the job of US Trade Representative, there would be every reason to fret. In fact, it might well be appropriate to openly and aggressively challenge the appointment of someone so at odds with Democratic values and policy goals to any of those posts.

But a White House chief of staff is not, traditionally, a policy maker or implementer. Rather, the chief of staff is the member of the president's inner circle who gets things done. A chief of staff who goes against the president's instincts or goals, or who cannot work with people who hold views different from his own, does not last long.

Rahm Emanuel - whose selection owes more to shared Chicago connections than to shared ideology -- is not being brought on to define the Obama administration.

It is Barack Obama's job to do that. Emanuel's job is to make sure that what the president wants done actually gets done. He's good at that, and that is why the new president picked the congressman from his hometown.

Obama wanted someone he knew well, someone he had worked with in the past and someone who he was sure could get the job done to serve as his chief of staff.

He gets all that with Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. But Emanuel is not going to be the president, Obama is. And if this administration adopts Emanuel's compromised positions, it will not be the fault of the chief of staff. It will be the fault of the president.

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Nichols is the author of The Genius of Impeachment (The New Press).

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