The Rahm goodbye: Grading Emanuel

As Obama's polarizing chief of staff steps down, a look at what he did right, and where he came up short

Emanuel brought a profanity-laced energy to the White House, which, some say, was a nice change of pace.
(Image credit: Getty)

After his final day on the job Friday as White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel is widely assumed to be moving back to Chicago to run for mayor. What sort of legacy will he leave behind after nearly two years as President Obama's "right-hand man"? The "fascinating" thing, says Chris Cillizza in The Washington Post, "is that almost no one in Democratic politics is without an opinion" on Emanuel's tenure. Here's a look at some of his biggest perceived successes and failures:


1. The stimulus

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Emanuel's "warlike intensity" was a key factor in one of Obama's big accomplishments, the passage of "a stimulus package that experts say prevented a sour economy from getting even worse," says Peter Nicholas in the Chicago Tribune. And when Obama's economic advisers pushed for a package in excess of $1 trillion, "Emanuel warned that the price tag would create a kind of sticker shock. His argument prevailed."

2. Running a tight ship

Emanuel served as chief of staff "with enormous distinction!" says Nigel Hamilton in The Huffington Post. Look at President Clinton's first two years, for example: "Serial mishaps, scandals, leaks, indecision, and arguments over his co-president (his wife)." We saw none of that from the Obama White House.

3. Health care reform

"With Emanuel at the helm, the current administration has pulled off landmark victories," notably health care reform, says Tim Fernholz in The American Prospect. And it will surely "be seen as a miracle one day" that Rahm & Co. were able to push through such a piece of "crucial legislation" in the face of the GOP's "die-hard obstructionism," says Nigel Hamilton. Remember, "no president since FDR has managed to... bring health care reform that will finally stop penalizing tens of millions of the sick in the world's most prosperous economy."

4. Bringing some fight to the White House

As Obama's "fireplug prime minister," Emanuel's biggest contribution was his fiery "will to win and his organizational capacity," says The American Prospect's Fernholz. It says something that "he's the only Democratic operative... who has ever made Republicans nervous." Progressives won't miss his "policy advice," but "we'll come to miss Rahm's politics." Some of us non-liberals "are actually sad" about Rahm's departure, too, says Julie Mason in The Washington Examiner. Someone "so colorful!" and "so profane!" was a nice change of pace in the "boring" Obama White House.


1. Alienating key constituents

Primarily, liberals. Rahm's "mutually antagonistic relationship with progressive activists" dates back years, says The American Prospect's Fernholz. And even when it came to his big selling point as chief of staff, his arm-twisting prowess, says David Weigel at Slate, liberals "are convinced that he was a paper tiger, a hack who never missed a chance to weaken the progressive agenda and a man whose toughness never translated to big, meaningful victories over Republicans." He's not popular among Latinos, either, says Ruben Navarrette at CNN, since his longtime leeriness of immigration reform did much to push it "so far to the back burner that it nearly fell off the stove."

2. Keeping too high a profile

When the position of chief of staff was created in 1939, a key job requirement was a "passion for anonymity," says Charles Dunn in the Chicago Tribune. Well, "a passion for anonymity Rahm Emanuel does not have," and his historically high profile played a big part in "detracting attention from President Barack Obama and his agenda."

3. Health care reform

"Obama pursued health care reform over Emanuel's private objections," says the Chicago Tribune's Peter Nicholas. Too bad for Emanuel that his "incremental" approach was ignored by "the White House and its Congressional allies from San Francisco and Las Vegas," says The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. "We'll have to wait for Mr. Emanuel's White House memoir to learn whether he thinks ObamaCare was worth the demolition job it is about to do on his party in the Congressional elections"

4. The "f---ing retarded" flap

Emanuel famously has "the extraordinary capacity to throw F-bombs into almost every conversation," according to one White House aide, but at least one time it cost him pretty dearly. His off-the-cuff remark that a progressive push to shame conservative Democrats was "f---ing retarded" offended "advocates for the disabled," says the Tribune's Nicholas, and gave ammo to Sarah Palin, who used the occasion to call on Rahm to resign.

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