Two former White House chiefs of staff praised President-elect Barack Obama’s choice of Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) to assume that job during a Brookings Institution panel on Friday.
Ken Duberstein, the former chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan, and Leon Panetta, the former California congressman who held the post in the Clinton White House, said Emanuel’s appointment suggested that Obama was serious about getting results from his administration.
“Rahm is exceptionally well-qualified for that job,” Duberstein said, lauding Obama for choosing a chief of staff so early in the transition process. “It sends a message here and abroad that this president-elect is all about governing and not campaigning.”
Panetta, who worked closely with Emanuel in the Clinton administration, shared that assessment, saying Emanuel “knows the White House inside out, and obviously now knows Capitol Hill.”
Panetta recognized Emanuel’s reputation for abrasiveness, but presented it as a potential asset to the nascent Obama administration.
“As I told the president-elect — and have told others — part of the job description is that you have to be an SOB as chief of staff. You’ve got to have somebody who makes the tough decisions,” Panetta said. “He’s the guy to do that in the administration.”
Emanuel’s appointment drew fire from Republicans Thursday, with some of the Chicago congressman’s GOP colleagues painting him as a partisan gunslinger.
“This is an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil and govern from the center,” House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.
Panetta dismissed the suggestion that Emanuel was too partisan to serve effectively in the White House.
“Of course he’s going to be partisan on Capitol Hill,” Panetta said. But he argued that “Rahm Emanuel is basically a centrist.”
Duberstein even suggested Emanuel’s toughest task might be restraining fellow Democrats, rather than fighting with Republicans.
“His challenge will be, with the president, reaching out and building coalitions on the Hill, saying no to some of the president-elect’s most important constituencies,” Duberstein said. “As partisan as Rahm may have been on the Hill, he’s all about governing.”
“There was at least one TV ad during the primaries about, ‘Who do you trust more to answer the phone at 3 o’clock in the morning?’” Duberstein said. “The reality is, the president doesn’t answer the phone at 3 o’clock in the morning. It’s the chief of staff. So the question is, Do you trust Rahm to answer the phone at 3 o’clock in the morning?”
Both men reflected on their White House experiences to offer advice to the president-elect, emphasizing the importance of focusing his agenda and not trying to accomplish too much at once.
Duberstein, for instance, said the mentality of the Reagan’s 1980 transition — “Everything we do is going to be about economic recovery” — was focused on the country’s most immediate challenge.
“You can walk and chew gum at the same time,” he said. “But you have to walk first.”
Panetta, too, suggested that Obama’s first task should be addressing the economic crisis, though he offered the war in Iraq and energy legislation as other top issues. And he foreshadowed the competition for space on Obama’s agenda.
“Health care, a lot of other issues, immigration, et cetera, those kind of have to line up out there,” he said.