President Barack Obama could face the biggest internal challenge of his presidency this week if White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel announces Friday, as expected, that he's leaving the White House to run for Chicago mayor.
"Rahm is nearing a decision on whether to leave the White House and explore a run for mayor of Chicago," a source described as "close to Emanuel" told Fox News Monday. "An announcement could come as early as Friday. Because of family considerations, no final decision has been made."
Emanuel's departure comes at a critical juncture for the Obama presidency, with a potential GOP tsunami bearing down on the Democratic Party in November, an exodus of top staffers, and rising complaints from the president's left wing about the ongoing war in Afghanistan and his failure to transform governance in Washington as promised.
The influence that Emanuel has had on Obama's ability to execute his agenda could hardly be overstated. Some sources describe him as the second-most powerful man in Washington.
News that the chief of staff may leave Washington comes as the White House struggles to get back on message following author Bob Woodward's revelations of intense Pentagon pushback against the president's plan to commit fewer troops to Afghanistan than requested and to begin a troop drawdown to begin in July 2011.
As Emanuel appears poised to follow a series of other top aides out the White House revolving door, new reports are emerging that portray an administration wracked by infighting and bureaucratic battles.
The National Law Journal recently reported that comments about Emanuel by former White House counsel Greg Craig that were captured on an open microphone indicate that Emanuel and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder were locked in a vicious bureaucratic battle.
Craig was recorded saying before a speech at Columbia Law School: "The great thing about it, if Rahm goes to run for mayor, is that Eric survived."
Later, Craig is overheard to remark of Holder, "They were after him."
Emanuel and Holder had clashed repeatedly, and Emanuel was said to be incensed over the political embarrassment to Obama when Holder selected New York City as the venue to conduct civil trials of major terrorist figures, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
In drastic contradiction to the "no-drama Obama" image of the president portrayed in the mainstream media during the election, the new impression of the Obama administration is one of internal dissention and rampant bureaucratic infighting.
The run-in with Holder was just the latest clash for the sharp-elbowed Emanuel. He first complicated things for Obama shortly after his appointment was announced, declaring to a group of business leaders "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste."
Emanuel, an energetic Obama loyalist and political pragmatist who relentlessly pushed his agenda forward, never quite fit in with the cool, cerebral team of insiders Obama brought with him from Chicago. At times, Obama appeared to poke fun at his intense second in command, who is renowned for profanity-laced tirades. Obama once said jokingly that Emanuel's loss, as a teenager, of part of his middle finger had "rendered him practically mute."
But at other times, Emanuel appeared to be wearing out his welcome. The New York Times reported that Steny H. Hoyer, the House majority leader, once phoned Emanuel. The chief of staff barked that he was too busy, and handed the phone to the president.
Because Emanuel, former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, recruited many of the conservative blue-dog Democrats now serving in Congress into politics, he played a key role for Obama in keeping Democratic moderates in line while the administration pushed forward on healthcare reform, cap and trade, the stimulus bill, and other progressive legislation.
With Obama's continued weak job-approval numbers, Democratic moderates have been distancing themselves from Obama on the campaign trail. There is no indication that anyone else in the administration could fill that void on Capitol Hill if Emanuel leaves.
As much as conservatives complained about Emanuel's heavy-handed tactics, he was a voice for political pragmatism in the White House, preventing some of the more ideological, left-leaning members of the administration from pushing the president's agenda even further to the left.
The London Telegraph reported this year: "It is well known in Washington that arguments have developed between pragmatic Mr. Emanuel, a veteran in Congress where he was known for driving through compromises, and the idealistic inner circle who followed Mr. Obama to the White House."
Richard Grenell, who was a spokesman for America's U.N. ambassadors during the Bush years, tells Newsmax: "Rahm has been one of the few White House officials that has tried to keep President Obama from going wimpy and extreme left. Without Rahm, President Obama loses one of the few White House officials that can read the mood of the electorate, stop the never-ending analysis and make a decision."
In an administration finely tuned to political correctness, Emanuel has been anything but. According to former auto czar Steve Rattner's book on the Obama takeover of GM and Chrysler, when Emanuel was advised that thousands of auto union members’ jobs were at stake he said: "F*** the UAW." The White House denied the account.
Emanuel's efforts to scale back Obamacare, in order to make it more palatable to moderates, also made him a target of what White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs later called the "professional left."
Newsweek's Jonathan Alter recounts in his book "The Promise" that Emanuel was fearful Obama's ambitious healthcare reforms would endanger the rest of the president's administration.
"I begged him not to do this," Emanuel told Alter.
The book said Emanuel tried again to get Obama to shelve the plan when centrist Democrats began to object in August 2009.
Obama originally said he expected Emanuel to wait until after the midterm elections to announce his departure.
But the host of heavyweight contenders preparing to run for the coveted Chicago mayor post apparently forced Emanuel to act sooner.
Emanuel needs 12,500 signatures to get on the ballot, but that actually would mean collecting at least 30,000 signatures in case some are challenged and thrown out. Collecting that many signatures requires a street-level political operation that Emanuel lacks at this point. University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist Dick Simpson, a former alderman, told the Chicago Tribune that may be a herculean task.
"My sense is Rahm won't be able to pull it together," Simpson said. "If he does enter the race soon and uses the money had has he could hire the people” to mount a petition drive.
Emanuel has $1.75 million available in a fund from his days as a congressman. The deadline to file nominating papers is Nov. 22, and the election is in February.
After first expressing hope that Emanuel would delay his decision until after the midterms, Obama now appears to be urging him to expedite his decision.
"I think that Rahm will have to make a decision quickly, because running for mayor of Chicago is a serious enterprise," President Obama said on NBC's "Today Show" Monday.
How much of a void the chief of staff's departure would create would depend on his replacement. Obama is not expected to name a permanent replacement until after the midterms. That would put the White House under the direction of a temporary replacement such as senior presidential adviser Pete Rouse.
University of Virginia Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato tells Newsmax: "Staff shake-ups are very common in White Houses at the midterm . . . Staff are there to serve the president. It is the president who sets the table and determines the agenda. There’s too much Kremlinology employed in analyzing staff changes.”
Sabato adds: "If Obama wants to be re-elected, and I think he does, he will respond rationally to the changes that are coming on November Second. He can consider the Clinton model and adapt it to his own needs. Of course, Clinton was re-elected mainly because the economy recovered in time, and that is what Obama is hoping for, too."
If Obama wants to signal a strong shift in the direction of his administration as Clinton did after the GOP wave election of 1994, he could opt for a relative outsider to take over, such as former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle or CIA Director Leon Panetta.
But the inside-the-Beltway consensus is that Obama probably will opt for someone he's comfortable with who is already inside the Obama team bubble. Those on the shortlist include adviser and longtime friend Valerie Jarrett, top national security aide Tom Donilon, and the president's White House counsel, Robert Bauer. Another option would be Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, who is thought likely to rejoin his colleagues in the West Wing early next year.
But whoever takes over for Emanuel, the White House will become a very different place.
"Obama knows that nobody can fully take on Emanuel's multiple responsibilities," Politico reports.
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