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Rahm departs with mixed legacy

Posted: October 5, 2010 3:42 p.m.
Updated: October 6, 2010 5:00 a.m.

"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 Barack 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.

The blogosphere's hives of left-progressive Rahm abuse -- like Daily Kos, Firedoglake and the Huffington Post -- reacted to his departure less like mourners than like Munchkins who just heard that a house had fallen on top of the Wicked Witch.

Emanuel's battles with the base illustrate an age-old political clash between staunchly principled idealists and pragmatic get-things-done realists. Party activists and independent progressives see Rahmbo as a sell-out compromiser with all roar and no bite who didn't fight hard enough for liberal principles.

Their discontent echoes the disappointment among Obama voters that feeds the "enthusiasm gap" cited by pollsters heading into the November midterm elections. A Gallup Poll for the week of Sept. 20-26, for example, shows Republicans with a 20-percentage-point lead over Democrats in terms of voters who are "very" enthusiastic about voting. If current patterns persist, Gallup says, that could translate into Republicans gaining "well above the number of seats necessary to control the House."

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 have become a well-known joke but they do little to make peace with the progressives upon whom the party relies for a healthy turnout at election time.

It also doesn't help Emanuel's reputation as a political wizard that embattled Democratic incumbents are running away, in some cases, from Obama's most important achievements, health care and finance reform. Good messaging matters.

His replacement, Pete Rouse, 64, a long-time Capitol Hill staffer for former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and later for then-Senator 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 provided 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.

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