In the spirit of Lyndon Johnson, Rahm Emanuel has been a master of the game as the White House chief of staff.
Emanuel has spent two years constantly recalibrating tactics, policies, and messages to convert President Obama's priorities into laws. Leading an administration with vast legislative ambitions, he has unwaveringly and unapologetically preached the art of the possible. During the health care reform debate, he rejected the Left's complaints that he had compromised too much by acidly noting that his goal "wasn't to see whether I can pass this through the executive board of the Brookings Institution."
Washington typecasts all of its leading players, and Emanuel's sharp edges and kinetic maneuvers have defined him as a tactician whose only fixed star is success. It's true that he has always prized achievement over purity. But the focus on his tactical agility can obscure the consistency of his own policy compass. If, as appears imminent, Emanuel leaves Washington to seek the Chicago mayoralty, the themes of his campaign would inevitably reflect the ideas that he advanced within the Obama administration -- which in turn were influenced by lessons he absorbed during his first White House tour under Bill Clinton.
"We are a more effective government when people are participating."--Rahm Emanuel
Emanuel's White House priorities have been eclectic (a "collage" as one senior colleague says), ranging from promoting high-speed rail to winding down the American military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. But through both of his White House stints and his turn in the U.S. House, Emanuel's policy interests have mostly revolved around three broad goals.
The first has been to target government's efforts at helping those who, as Clinton put it, "work hard and play by the rules." Emanuel has long pushed to expand health care coverage for children of the working poor (one of the first bills Obama signed). Inside the administration, he's promoted efforts to simplify and enlarge tax credits for college education and to expand community college access.
The second element of Emanuel's thinking has been the Clintonite formulation of linking opportunity with responsibility. The 1994 crime bill, which embodied that principle by coupling funding for 100,000 new police officers and expanded prevention programs, remains, in many respects, his policy template.
The final pillar of Emanuel's approach has been his belief that Americans will accept more activism from government only if it's linked to reform. He summarized that conviction in The Plan, the 2006 book he co-authored with Bruce Reed, Clinton's former domestic policy adviser: "We have to reform government in order to save it," they wrote. Emanuel has often been most personally engaged by initiatives that embody that belief, such as the proposals during health care to "bend the curve" of rising costs. Similarly, in an effort to improve often abysmal graduation rates, he's pushed to tie increased higher-education aid to tougher standards for colleges and universities.
Most significantly, he's nurtured Obama's best reform innovation -- the Education Department's Race to the Top fund, which required states to develop comprehensive improvement plans to compete for more than $4 billion in federal K-12 school aid. "He has just been an absolute champion," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. "He has been relentless on this."
That plan has been widely praised for catalyzing local change, and Emanuel has pushed for applying the competition model to other federal grants now allocated by formulas. "You make government more competitive ... and it engages people at the local level to pick up their game," he said in an interview. "We are a more effective government when people are participating."
That same belief, he says, has spurred his interest in community policing (an idea advanced in the 1994 crime bill) and charter schools, especially those founded by teachers or parents. The common goal, he says, "is engaging people to be involved in their own government."
All of Obama's advisers will face second-guessing about their strategic choices if Republicans surge in November. But a Chicago mayoral race would allow Emanuel to set his own course, and he'd likely strike a different balance between expanding and reforming government than Obama. "Too much of the debate about big and small government misses how to make it more effective and more responsive," Emanuel says.
That's one of several lessons from Washington that he believes would apply well to local government -- if he happens to find himself seeking employment in one any time soon.
This article appears in the Oct. 2, 2010, edition of National Journal.