Obama's bad cop

Skip Rutherford, dean of the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock, worked with Rahm Emanuel on the staff of Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign and, from time to time, on a Clinton White House project.

Rutherford recalls that he and Emanuel worked together in a war room of sorts passing NAFTA, the Republican-embraced free trade agreement that working people in Ohio and Pennsylvania have come to generally detest.

Rutherford recalls Emanuel's focus, energy and brash, if likable, humor. He remembers Emanuel's hanging up the phone after trying to sell NAFTA to a Democratic congressman in the summer of 1993, and saying, "This is the Lamaze method of government -- breathe, push and deliver."

Emanuel had come to Clinton's service largely through Hillary's connections in Chicago. She had a friend who knew some young political whiz kids in Chicago who might like to use Clinton's unlikely presidential campaign for some national experience. One was David Wilhelm, who became campaign manager.

The other was Emanuel, who moved to Little Rock in early 1992 and started working the phones trying to raise money for Clinton.

Then Emanuel went to the White House, first as political director and, more successfully, as a general adviser, strategist and operative. Then, after the Clinton presidency, Emanuel went into investment banking and made several million dollars.

In 2002, he ran for Congress from Chicago and got elected. In short order he was on the Democratic leadership team. In 2006, he led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee when its candidates swept to victories across the country and imposed a new and significant Democratic majority. Lately he has been House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's most resourceful, most cerebral, most successful and most muscular lieutenant.

Now Emanuel's fellow Chicago Democrat, Barack Obama, has tapped Emanuel to be his White House chief of staff.

"Obama's victory is historic," Rutherford said. "But now he has to deliver. He's brought in the chief deliverer."

The word on Emanuel is that he focuses and succeeds, and that, if necessary, he will run over you or cut you down with his sharp if sometimes mean-spirited wit.

Brash. Arrogant. Those are the words you always hear, along with smart.

It seems fairly obvious that Obama has decided this: He has two years to succeed as president, to get some of his promises kept. To do that he must avoid some of the early-stage errors of his predecessor, Bill Clinton. You know, of course, that every new president sets out to avoid the errors of the immediate past president from his party.

One of Clinton's early problems was a lack of discipline, both internally in the White House and externally in relations with Congress, specifically with balking members of his own party.

Clinton needed a bad cop. Obama has gone out first thing and nabbed him one.

Many of the House Democrats compiling the current majority got elected under Emanuel's guidance of the DCCC. They are indebted and respectful.

Pelosi has come to rely on Emanuel for focus, discipline and enforcement.

So Obama is banking that Emanuel can use this uncommon mix of relevant experience -- in the Clinton White House, as a high-up in the Pelosi House, as a benefactor of House Democrats -- to keep party members in line if and when Obama must disappoint them, as almost assuredly he will, with a pared agenda and bipartisan overtures.

Emanuel has the credibility and style to tell Pelosi -- and Harry Reid, too, I suspect -- how the president says it's going to have to be.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.