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Emanuel and Axelrod star in White House talks

President Obama was certain that he wanted to pass a healthcare bill. The question before his advisors was how to go about it.

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel supported the idea of a government-run program that would compete with private health insurers but wasn’t sure there were enough votes in the Senate to pass it. Senior advisor David Axelrod pointed out that abandoning the “public option” would alienate some in Congress and the liberal voters who made Obama’s 2008 victory possible.

In meeting after meeting, the two longtime and strong-willed friends debated, sometimes even switching sides -- but remained committed to the same overall goal.

The story of how the two interacted during the fight to pass the healthcare bill is a window not only on their relationship but also on the administration’s process of governing, which has the historic legislation at the brink of passage.

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Aides say a similar back-and-forth has played out in virtually every important White House decision over the last year, from the revision of the war plan in Afghanistan to the best way to handle the issue of pork projects in budget bills.

Axelrod and Emanuel are star players in almost every discussion. That might be expected given the common portrayals of the two. Emanuel is the hard-eyed, salty-tongued pragmatist who counts votes and navigates the polarized politics of Capitol Hill. Axelrod is more relaxed and avuncular, more inclined to invoke the aspirational language that Obama used in his campaign.

Years ago, when they played basketball with future Democratic Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, “Axelrod shot three-pointers,” Quinn recalled. “Rahm called a lot of fouls.”

Now, with the healthcare battle apparently won, the two men insist that their friendship has not suffered. They’re quick to challenge any suggestion that they regularly disagree, let alone argue.

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Yet they probably are not in it for the long haul. Both Axelrod and Emanuel have strong ties to Chicago and, though neither man would openly state his plans in separate interviews, they are widely expected to leave before the end of Obama’s first term.

Emanuel dislikes the impulse to categorize the two, as if “somehow all I have in here,” he said, pointing to his heart, “is a screwdriver, and I just come to work each day to be pragmatic but I have no values and no ideas.

“David works in a political system too, and he’s trying to get something done,” Emanuel said. “And I have a set of ideals too, and that doesn’t make me pragmatic and him an idealist.”

In fact, Axelrod and Emanuel are probably best understood as a tandem: 30-year friends who orbit the president like same-sized moons, exerting a constant push and pull on debates.

“If we don’t test each other’s ideas out, then we’re letting each other down,” Axelrod said. “One of the roles that I have to play, and one of the roles [Rahm] will play with me, is to challenge our assumptions all the time.”

Their odd-couple relationship goes back to the beginning of their careers.

Though Emanuel is often portrayed as a bloodless operative, those who knew him three decades ago considered him something of an idealist. He worked as an organizer for a good-government group called Illinois Public Action.

He enjoyed political success too, helping to elect to Congress the first Democrat from western Illinois in more than a century. The win made the 22-year-old Emanuel so giddy that he called the Chicago Tribune to gush. On the other end of the call was Axelrod, 27, the paper’s chief political writer.

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Not long afterward, Axelrod left journalism to run Paul Simon’s 1984 campaign for the U.S. Senate. Emanuel was already on board as a fieldworker and fundraiser.

Axelrod continued working on campaigns but never took a job in government, and never left Chicago as his base of operation -- an outsider to the Beltway and to the governing process in general.

Emanuel, meanwhile, became a government insider. After serving in the Clinton White House and working a brief, lucrative stint as an investment banker, he ran for Congress in 2002.

“My day always began at that time with a call from Rahm,” Axelrod said. “And it was punctuated by calls from Rahm throughout the day.”

Emanuel won.

Axelrod served as Obama’s top strategist during the 2008 campaign. Emanuel was persuaded to leave Congress and become chief of staff after the election.

Now that the duo is reunited in the West Wing, they again talk constantly. Emanuel’s habit is to stride into Axelrod’s office and pace, periodically looking at himself in the gilded mirror near the doorway.

Emanuel, 50, is technically Axelrod’s boss. He runs staff meetings and sets the daily agenda from his corner office. Axelrod, 55, has a role that is less codified, but his influence comes from years of close rapport with Obama. His office is cramped but is closest to the president’s.

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As the healthcare debate evolved, some on Capitol Hill believed it looked like Emanuel and Axelrod were staking out polar positions on the hot-button question of whether the government should offer a public insurance program.

Emanuel, as some saw it, was against the public option. Axelrod, they thought, supported it.

But people who took part in the in-house talks give a more nuanced account. Both men were actually for the public option, as several of them tell the story.

Axelrod frequently reminded the group of promises from the campaign trail. Meanwhile, said another, “Rahm was first to think the votes weren’t there” for the public option.

Yet even after White House aides had acknowledged that the public option might not work out, it was Emanuel who more than once brought the subject up again. As it turned out, the public option never had the votes to pass.

In recent weeks, the Axelrod-Emanuel alliance has endured a new stress -- a spate of news stories examining whether the president’s difficulties in selling his agenda may be traced to Emanuel and Axelrod and perceived tensions between the two.

One report suggested that Obama had ignored Emanuel’s pragmatic advice, to his detriment.

Axelrod’s response is a shrug. Aides said the 7:30 a.m. staff meeting in Emanuel’s office still is likely to include a joke from the chief of staff about the oatmeal Axelrod has spilled on his tie. Axelrod cracks wise about the younger man’s famous temper.

“There’s a well-worn path between this office and that office, going both ways,” Axelrod said.

Axelrod has rented an apartment near the White House. His wife and daughter still live in Chicago, and he calls himself “a Chicagoan on assignment.”

Many Democrats expect him to leave the White House next year to transfer to Obama’s expected reelection campaign.

Emanuel said only that his “intention is to stay next year.” His former ambition to become speaker of the House, he says, is “done.”

“I left Congress,” he said “Things happen; there’ll be new classes. . . . You move on to other aspirations.”

Friends believe he is most interested in running for mayor of Chicago, though none seem to think he would ever consider running against the incumbent.

“Daley’s running,” he recently told one friend, “so I’m not.”

peter.nicholas@ latimes.com

cparsons@latimes.com


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