Keep Rahm Emanuel As Far Away As Possible From the Biden Administration

Neoliberal architect Rahm Emanuel is reportedly being considered for a top spot in Biden’s cabinet. That idea needs to be immediately thrown in the trash.

Miles Kampf-Lassin

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On Novem­ber 6, 2008, just two days after win­ning the pres­i­den­cy on a cam­paign pow­ered by mes­sages of hope” and change,” Barack Oba­ma set the tone for his new admin­is­tra­tion by announc­ing his incom­ing chief of staff. No one I know is bet­ter at get­ting things done than Rahm Emanuel,” he said.

Among the things” Emanuel had gained a rep­u­ta­tion for get­ting done were cor­po­rate-friend­ly poli­cies that dev­as­tat­ed work­ing-class com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try, while also cham­pi­oning a stale cen­trist polit­i­cal doc­trine that shut out pro­gres­sive voic­es while ele­vat­ing a rich donor class to set the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty agenda.

Today, anoth­er new­ly-elect­ed Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dent is set to take pow­er, and, again, neolib­er­al stan­dard-bear­er Rahm Emanuel is appar­ent­ly being con­sid­ered for a top spot in the admin­is­tra­tion. Accord­ing to reports from Politi­co and the New York Times, Emanuel is among the con­tenders for a top cab­i­net posi­tion under Pres­i­dent-elect Joe Biden, poten­tial­ly head­ing the Trans­porta­tion or Hous­ing departments. 

In 2008, Obama’s selec­tion of Emanuel pro­voked out­rage from the Democ­rats’ left flank and pre­saged an era of timid, elite-dri­ven pol­i­cy mak­ing. Now, Biden’s con­sid­er­a­tion of the Third Way” arche­type should be met with absolute oppo­si­tion, as any hopes for a pro­gres­sive shift in U.S. pol­i­cy hinge on keep­ing cor­po­rate toad­ies like Emanuel tram­meled from the levers of Amer­i­can power. 

Emanuel’s first stint at the White House came not under Oba­ma, but rather in Bill Clinton’s admin­is­tra­tion in the 1990s. There, he served as an archi­tect of the NAF­TA free trade” deal that dec­i­mat­ed orga­nized labor, sent jobs over­seas, destroyed much of U.S. man­u­fac­tur­ing and helped lead to a mas­sive flow of mon­ey to the top of the country’s income brack­et while Amer­i­can work­ers saw their wages flat line. He sim­i­lar­ly helped push through wel­fare reform which led to an enor­mous growth in extreme pover­ty, and worked to pass the 1994 crime bill, a direct cause of the mass incar­cer­a­tion and crim­i­nal injus­tice crises that con­tin­ue to beset the Unit­ed States. 

After serv­ing under Clin­ton, Emanuel tran­si­tioned to the finan­cial indus­try where he made $16 mil­lion in just a few years before win­ning a seat in Con­gress in 2002. In 2006, he head­ed the pow­er­ful Demo­c­ra­t­ic Con­gres­sion­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee (DCCC), where he engi­neered a strat­e­gy of recruit­ing con­ser­v­a­tive Blue Dog” Democ­rats to run in swing districts. 

While he received many acco­lades for Demo­c­ra­t­ic vic­to­ries in that year’s midterm elec­tions, as jour­nal­ist Ryan Grim recounts in his book We’ve Got Peo­ple: From Jesse Jack­son to Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, the End of Big Mon­ey and the Rise of a Move­ment, Emanuel’s strat­e­gy actu­al­ly cost Democ­rats seats in a num­ber of races, and cer­tain­ly had elec­toral costs down the road — as Rahm’s class of new mem­bers watered down and opposed Obama’s agen­da, help­ing slow the econ­o­my and make health­care reform less pop­u­lar, ulti­mate­ly feed­ing lat­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic loss­es.” Indeed, in the decade that fol­lowed, Democ­rats lost near­ly 1,000 seats across the coun­try, hem­or­rhag­ing majori­ties in state leg­is­la­tures and relin­quish­ing pow­er to Repub­li­cans dead-set on revers­ing all the gains made under Demo­c­ra­t­ic leadership. 

Once pro­mot­ed into Obama’s admin­is­tra­tion, Emanuel made a name for him­self by resist­ing all efforts to pur­sue the kind of bold approach the new pres­i­dent had broad­cast on the cam­paign trail. 

For his open­ing gam­bit, he fought tooth-and-nail to deflate the lev­el of stim­u­lus fund­ing that Obama’s eco­nom­ic advis­ers were encour­ag­ing, argu­ing that the gov­ern­ment response need­ed to be mut­ed in order to ben­e­fit mod­er­ates in the par­ty. Emanuel was suc­cess­ful, and the reduced stim­u­lus was lat­er cit­ed by many experts as ensur­ing a slug­gish eco­nom­ic recov­ery, which haunt­ed the admin­is­tra­tion for years, while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly wreak­ing hav­oc on the lives of work­ing people. 

Emanuel would go on to advise Oba­ma against pur­su­ing both a com­pre­hen­sive health­care plan (a fight he ulti­mate­ly lost) and quick action on immi­gra­tion reform (a rec­om­men­da­tion that was heed­ed, as Oba­ma wait­ed years to push for such action before fail­ing to reach the fin­ish line). Emanuel also threw union work­ers under the bus dur­ing the administration’s nego­ti­a­tions to help save the U.S. auto indus­try in 2010, as summed up by his infa­mous quote: Fuck the UAW.” 

Emanuel then left the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion to mount a suc­cess­ful cam­paign for Chica­go may­or, where he served from 2011 until leav­ing office in a mias­ma of con­tro­ver­sy and dis­grace in 2019. Dur­ing that peri­od, he took the ideas of mar­ket fun­da­men­tal­ism and aus­ter­i­ty that he advo­cat­ed under Clin­ton and Oba­ma and car­ried them out on a city-wide scale. 

Soon after assum­ing office, he shut down half of the city’s pub­lic men­tal health cen­ters and lat­er car­ried out the largest mass pub­lic school clos­ings in U.S. his­to­ry, open­ing the door for pri­vate, for-prof­it char­ters to fill the vac­u­um. He also bat­tled the city’s labor move­ment, slash­ing pub­lic-sec­tor union jobs and pro­vok­ing a his­toric (and suc­cess­ful) strike by the pow­er­ful Chica­go Teach­ers Union. At the same time, he cut and pri­va­tized pub­lic ser­vices, raised regres­sive fines and fees for every­day Chicagoans, hand­ed out tax break to the cor­po­rate class, over­saw trau­ma­tiz­ing lev­els of gun vio­lence and police abuse, and refused to give any seat at the table to the city’s tapes­try of pro­gres­sive com­mu­ni­ty organizations. 

When it comes to trans­porta­tion and hous­ing, the two areas where he’s report­ed­ly being dis­cussed for a role in the Biden admin­is­tra­tion, Emanuel boasts a sim­i­lar­ly trou­bling record. 

What came of his much-hyped project to build an express bul­let train from down­town to O’Hare Air­port through a col­lab­o­ra­tion with tech mogul Elon Musk (who also hap­pened to donate over $55,000 to the Chica­go may­or)? It nev­er went any­where, leav­ing a gap­ing chasm under the city’s streets. Emanuel also aban­doned plans to improve tran­sit near Chicago’s Muse­um Cam­pus and failed to respond to rapid­ly declin­ing bus ridership. 

Under Emanuel, the Chica­go Hous­ing Author­i­ty sat on hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars while the wait­list for pub­lic hous­ing sky­rock­et­ed, and the may­or did near noth­ing to pro­vide sup­port for strug­gling res­i­dents as the con­struc­tion of new afford­able hous­ing slowed down dra­mat­i­cal­ly. He also pushed through the biggest prop­er­ty tax increase in the city’s his­to­ry and shift­ed fund­ing for hous­ing to wealthy neigh­bor­hoods while dis­plac­ing long-term res­i­dents and starv­ing poor com­mu­ni­ties of much-need­ed resources. 

But no account­ing of Emanuel’s ruinous record in Chica­go would be com­plete with­out acknowl­edg­ing his role in the scan­dal around the 2014 police mur­der of Black teenag­er Laquan McDon­ald. Ahead of Emanuel’s may­oral reelec­tion in 2015, the video show­ing police offi­cer Jason Van Dyke shoot­ing 16 bul­lets into McDon­ald was with­held from the pub­lic — an action many crit­ics claim was part of a larg­er cov­er-up around the mur­der. The release of the video led to waves of mass street protests and calls for Emanuel to resign, ramp­ing up polit­i­cal pres­sure on the incum­bent may­or before he even­tu­al­ly decid­ed in 2019 not to seek a third term in office. 

In the midst of a nation­al reck­on­ing over racial injus­tice, with social move­ments demand­ing a redis­tri­b­u­tion of both wealth and pow­er in our soci­ety, the appoint­ment of a fig­ure as tox­ic as Rahm Emanuel would send a clear mes­sage from the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty to its vot­ers: You put us into office, now sit qui­et­ly while we hand the reins over to the same fig­ures who gave rise to many of the crises that tor­ment your lives.” 

New­ly-reelect­ed Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) summed it up well when she told the New York Times on Mon­day: Some­one like Rahm Emanuel would be a pret­ty divi­sive pick. And it would sig­nal, I think, a hos­tile approach to the grass-roots and the pro­gres­sive wing of the party.”

Work­ing peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or won this elec­tion for Joe Biden and Kamala Har­ris, and offer­ing a cab­i­net post to Rahm Emanuel would be a betray­al of these very vot­ing blocs. Worse, it would show that the incom­ing admin­is­tra­tion doesn’t actu­al­ly plan to lis­ten to its base. That’s no way to start out a new term in office. Let’s keep Rahm Emanuel con­fined to the dust­bin of polit­i­cal his­to­ry — right where he belongs. 

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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