Emanuel enjoys being the bad guy

Bendavid writes for the Chicago Tribune.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel might not appear to be the obvious choice for White House chief of staff for a president-elect who speaks eloquently of setting aside partisan differences and bringing the country together.

The Illinois congressman, after all, is best known as something of a Democratic political assassin. From his days as a top aide to President Clinton to his recent role leading the Democrats to a House majority, Emanuel has relentlessly attacked his foes and gone ruthlessly after anyone who stood in his way.

Perhaps precisely because Obama seems likely to adopt a unifying posture as president, he may need someone practiced in the art of political hardball.

Republican strategist John Feehery -- who worked for former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and former House Minority Leader Robert H. Michel as well as former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay -- said Emanuel could help prevent House Democrats from overreaching.

"He understands that if Obama goes too far to the left, it's not going to be good for the Democrats," Feehery said. "I think he's the kind of guy who can knock some heads and help Obama guide the Congress toward the middle. . . . You will need a bad cop to Obama's good cop, and Rahm will fill that role quite nicely."

Emanuel's policies, unlike his politics, have always been centrist, in the Bill Clinton mold. In addition, a different Emanuel has emerged in recent years, one who has forged friendships with Republicans and shown an ability to work with them on occasion.

Emanuel was born in Chicago and kicked off his political career working for such powerhouses as Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and former Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois before joining Clinton's 1992 presidential run.

Along the way, Emanuel earned a reputation for a colorful intensity unusual even in the hard-hitting world of politics. His profanity is legendary and seems designed in part to throw his interlocutors off-balance.

Emanuel excelled at fundraising, sometimes screaming and shouting at donors until they agreed to contribute -- generously -- to his candidate. He threatened to tear up checks if he considered them too small.

"Congressional Republicans respect what he has been able to do," Feehery said. "They think he's a formidable opponent. They think he works his butt off. They won't particularly love him, but if he's smart, they will respect him."

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nbendavid@tribune.com

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