"Larger than life." That's how Rahm Emanuel's first-grade teacher described him in a written evaluation, according to a March 2009 profile in the New Yorker. Smart teacher. The man widely known as simply "Rahm" or "Rahmbo" today apparently loomed large even then. His looming continues.
Now the former Democratic congressman looms large in Chicago's mayoral race, which he is leaving his post as President Obama's chief of staff to enter. His largeness offers an advantage in a field crowded with a dozen or more potential candidates, now that the formidable Mayor Richard M. Daley has decided not to run again. But it also makes him a bigger target.
In judging his potential as a mayor, many will look at his legacy at the Obama White House, a legacy that looks mixed, particularly among the people upon whom every political candidate depends — his base.
Party activists and independent progressives see Emanuel as a sellout compromiser with all roar and no bite who didn't fight hard enough for liberal principles.
Liberals recall one story after another in which Emanuel was reported to be the administration's voice of compromise. He preferred moderate alternatives to Obama's comprehensive health care overhaul and major stimulus bills that other congressional Democrats supported. He favored financial reforms that aided Wall Street investors over measures to bail out lower-income and middle-class workers.
His reported 2009 reference to liberal interest groups' attacks on conservative Democrats as "(expletive) retarded" captured what many saw as his disregard for the party's base. That's Rahm. His notoriously cranky, often profane manner has become a well-known joke, but it does little to make peace with the progressives upon whom the party relies for a healthy turnout at election time.
His replacement, Pete Rouse, 64, a longtime Capitol Hill staffer for former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and later for then-Sen. Obama, looms small — and that gives Obama two things he needs: a good fixer for the transition to the second half of his term, and flexibility as he faces a possible loss of the House and perhaps even the Senate to Republican majorities.
Emanuel, 50, came into the White House as "Mr. 60," the guy looking for any legislative deal that could win a 60-vote filibuster-proof Senate majority. If Republicans take the House, look for the post-midterm Obama White House to execute the veto pen more as the president tries to hold on to past legislative gains against Republican assaults.
As for Emanuel's mayoral hopes, it works to his advantage that the sort of ideological issues that motivate the party's national base are less important than the bread-and-butter issues involved with running a city.
Not known as "Mr. Warmth," his biggest challenge will be to build a support coalition beyond his old North Side congressional district in a city of 50 wards and a crazy quilt of racial, ethnic and political power groups and interests.
With Chicago's unemployment high and its city budget in deep deficit, Emanuel's reputation as an expert fundraiser could work in his favor. Chicago voters are not looking for the urban visionary that Daley was, with his massive building and beautification projects. They're looking for someone who knows how to raise revenue and balance budgets and encourage industry. The city that likes to call itself "the city that works" wants to get working again.