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