Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is lobbying strenuously for the job of transportation secretary in a Biden administration, sources close to the situation told The Intercept. A junior Cabinet position for Emanuel would invert a power dynamic that has long complicated the relationship between the hard-charging Emanuel and President-elect Joe Biden.
It goes back to the early days of the Clinton administration. With Republicans bearing down on the House of Representatives in the 1994 midterms, the White House still had hopes of staving off a wipeout and thought that a major crime bill would go a long way toward that goal.
In the Senate, the measure was championed by Biden, then a Delaware senator and chair of the Judiciary Committee. In the White House, the effort was being organized by the up-and-coming Emanuel, then the White House political director in his early 30s, who’d been in high school when Biden first started pushing Democrats to get tougher on crime during the Carter administration.
For Biden, the crime bill was the culmination of more than a decade of legislative work, an act that would bear his name and become a key part of his legacy. For Emanuel, Biden was one more lawmaker who needed his feelings catered to. Emanuel is not well known for his delicate touch, and in a June 30, 1994 memo, he asked Bill Clinton if the president could do a little cleanup for him. “Certain key members have recently had their feathers ruffled, and need reassurance that they and their particular interests are appreciated and supported,” Emanuel wrote. Among that small list:
In May 1994, Biden had come out in strong support of the Racial Justice Act, which would allow death penalty defendants to use racial disparity statistics in fighting execution. The measure was a high priority of the Congressional Black Caucus, NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, and a coalition of racial justice groups. After Biden’s defense of it on the Senate floor, however, it became increasingly clear that the White House was willing to strip it out to win right-wing support.
That Biden couldn’t protect a key provision of the crime bill from Emanuel’s political calculations angered him. “They didn’t get along during the process of passing the crime bill,” recalled one Democratic operative, who requested anonymity due to his relationship with the Biden apparatus. “Rahm was being his usual bullying self, and Biden thought it was his bill.”
Emanuel recalled a close working relationship with Biden during the Clinton administration, saying that he was impressed with Biden’s political courage in pursuit of the crime bill. In a meeting Clinton held with House and Senate Democratic leadership, Emanuel said, the congressional Democrats urged him to pull the assault weapons ban out of the overall bill, noting that they were having problems getting the package through their respective chambers. “Everyone knew it would effectively kill the assault weapon ban. Clinton refused,” Emanuel told The Intercept. “Biden disagreed with leadership. Stood up just before the meeting was to end and said to the room, but directed to POTUS, ‘I suppose I need to wear the flak jacket to get this done the way you want, Mr. President.’ Clinton said, ‘That’s about right, Joe.’ And that’s how it ended.”
Emanuel said that he and Clinton administration officials Ron Klain and Bruce Reed “were assigned to work with Senator Biden to find the votes to keep the AWB in the overall package.” Klain and Reed became longtime allies of Biden, with Klain set to serve as Biden’s White House chief of staff.
Emanuel left the Clinton administration in 1998 for a lucrative stint in the private sector, pocketing some $16 million in less than two years for brokering deals, mostly in the nuclear industry, between the types of people he’d met while serving in the White House. He and Biden didn’t overlap much until Barack Obama was elected president, naming Emanuel as his chief of staff. To demonstrate the breadth of his power, Emanuel would tell visitors to his West Wing office that it was eight square feet larger than the vice president’s across the street.
Emanuel left in October 2010 to run for Chicago mayor after a flurry of legislative activity — the Affordable Care Act, Wall Street reform, an economic stimulus — that would be cut short when Republicans took the House a month later.
David Axelrod, an adviser to the president at the time, said Emanuel and Biden had a good relationship. “They got along very well,” Axelrod said. “They did know each other from that period in the ’90s when Rahm was honchoing the Brady Law and the assault weapons ban.”
Emanuel and the president tended to move at a faster pace than Biden, however, who was schooled in the Senate tradition of meandering ruminations. The Senate for decades prided itself as the world’s “greatest deliberative body,” and senators prided themselves in their expressions of deference and courtesy for their colleagues. Talking endlessly in circles was a way for senators to avoid conflict and keep an air of civility about the body. It also suited the elderly men in the upper chamber, who enjoyed telling stories about the old days and hearing themselves speak.
Just as Biden had to go through Emanuel to get his crime bill over the line, he now found Emanuel between him and the president.
Tony Blinken, a close aide to Biden over the years who is considered a potential secretary of state pick, said that Obama couldn’t quite take Biden’s rambling approach in the Senate. “They weren’t in sync,” Blinken told a reporter for the Washington Post Magazine. “Obama would listen to Biden holding forth in the committee and roll his eyes.” Obama once passed a note to his aide Robert Gibbs during one such committee meeting that read simply: “Shoot. Me. Now.”
Among Obama’s aides, including Emanuel, that practice continued, as Biden was known as the guy whose suggestions in the meeting would send it sideways unless humored and then respectfully ignored. Biden, though, valued his private time with Obama. Just as he had to go through Emanuel to get his crime bill over the line, he now found Emanuel between him and the president. Every White House sees tension between the vice president and the chief of staff, though Biden recognized that as a former member of Congress who gave up his seat — and his potential to become speaker of the House — Emanuel was as entitled to respect as Biden was.
In May, Emanuel told CNN that Biden would often come into his office and offer him advice. “I’ve talked to Joe Biden multiple times over the last two months,” Emanuel said. “I’ve had the same conversation with Joe Biden today as I did when I was chief of staff, and he’d come in and tell me what I needed to do up in Congress to get something done and seek his advice on things.”
“Rahm respected him a lot,” Axelrod recalled. “Sought his counsel. Appreciated his loyalty to the president and his insights on Congress and interventions with them at critical times.”
Biden played an active role in lobbying senators during the White House’s major pushes for legislation, but did not have a Dick Cheney-level presence in administration debates, which meant there was little opportunity for Biden and Emanuel to cross swords or to have feathers ruffled.
Since Emanuel left the White House, the pair have had an openly friendly relationship. Through tears, Emanuel told a CNN documentary crew about Biden reaching out after Emanuel’s father had died — as thoroughly a Biden gesture as imaginable. “Joe was the first one to call. I mean, like the day he died. He’s got a lot of stuff going on,” Emanuel noted, referencing the Iowa caucuses and Biden’s presidential campaign, pausing to collect himself. “He’s a good man. Even if you disagree with Joe, nobody assigns a nefarious or dark motivation,” said Emanuel, who is himself routinely ascribed with dark motivations.
Emanuel, however, was not uniformly a Biden cheerleader during the primary. “The concern I have for Joe is it looks a little too restoration and not enough change,” Emanuel said in March 2019 on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” After Biden won the nomination, Emanuel made sure the public knew he was in regular touch with the nominee.
The post of transportation secretary has long been considered somewhat outside of politics, which, paradoxically, could be an advantage for Emanuel.
Still, there was a hint of that eye-rolling in how he described the interminably long late-night phone calls. “I’ve seen him energetic. I’ve seen him working. My phone calls are late into the night with him, so if anything, he’s got too much energy. I’m the one that’s saying, ‘Joe, I gotta go, time up,’” Emanuel said on CNN. “So I’m very confident in the capacity of the vice president. I knew him when he was a senator, when I worked for President Clinton. I knew him as a colleague when I was in Congress, chief of staff, mayor, and I know him now. And he’s the same person I’ve seen before.”
The post of transportation secretary has long been considered somewhat outside of politics, which, paradoxically, could be an advantage for Emanuel as he pursues it, given that it is a less threatening position to hold — which could dampen opposition from both progressives in the Democratic Party and from Republicans. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., spoke for many on the party’s left flank when she told the New York Times that an Emanuel appointment would be “divisive” at a time the party needs to come together. “It would signal, I think, a hostile approach to the grassroots and the progressive wing of the party,” Ocasio-Cortez said. Emanuel has largely directed his most aggressive political assaults not at Republicans, but at the progressive wing of the party.
Emanuel was first elected to Congress in 2002 as a backer of the Iraq War and ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, a wave year for Democrats that saw fierce primaries between progressives and Emanuel-backed centrists. “We took on the communists in the party,” Emanuel celebrated after one primary victory. During his stint in the Obama administration, Emanuel was frequently at war privately with progressive groups to get them to keep their skepticism of the administration quiet — at one point telling a meeting of progressives that they were “fucking retarded” for pressuring Blue Dog Democrats, and at other times threatening the outside funding of organizations that didn’t get in line. Emanuel later apologized for using the word “retarded.”
As Chicago mayor, Emanuel continued to antagonize the left on everything from housing to policing to education. His tenure was effectively ended when it emerged that his office played a role in covering up the murder by Chicago police of Laquan McDonald.