The Liberation of Rahm Emanuel, Obama Heavy Turned Chicago Mayor

Obama’s combustible former chief of staff is getting things done in the Windy City. But he also says Republicans are to blame for the Beltway dysfunction that’s hurting his city. Plus, read Caitlin Dickson on Chicago's lockdown ahead of this weekend's NATO summit.

05.18.12 8:45 AM ET

It doesn’t sound like Rahm Emanuel misses working in the White House all that much.

“In Washington there’s a partisanship you don’t have here in the city,” the Chicago mayor tells me. “The country is very angry about the lack of progress in Washington. Individuals in Washington think they’re removed from that anger.”

His analysis as a loyal Democrat: “Look, a lot of Republicans don’t believe in government as an affirmative force. They don’t believe it can do stuff.”

Emanuel has just passed the one-year mark running America’s third-largest city, and the experience could not be more different than his tenure as a congressman and top aide to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. He and his team aren’t “shrinking violets,” he noted, not that anyone would libel Rahm by accusing him of such a thing.

While Congress has basically done squat this year, Emanuel got his aldermen to approve his budget—including painful layoffs, fee hikes, and police-station closures—on a 50-0 vote. Not bad, considering that he inherited a $600 million deficit. And he’s getting good press to boot. “Lucky for Chicago, this pit bull is on our side,” a Sun-Times editorial declared. The new hizzoner is enjoying a 52 percent approval rating in a Chicago Tribune/WGN poll out this week.

Emanuel ticks off a series of accomplishments, from reforming garbage collection to announcing a new air-cargo facility. But the list obviously remains unfinished. “I’m trying to get pension reform, I’m not there yet,” the mayor says. There have been stumbles, and the Tribune has noted that “the self-proclaimed champion of transparency … has proved to be secretive.” Nor is Emanuel, whose words tumble out in rapid-fire bursts, a great orator.

But eloquence matters less at the urban level. Mayors have to deliver services or face eviction. They don’t have the luxury of getting mired in endless ideological battles, or of printing money. They have more power than a typical member of Congress, but it’s a make-the-trains-run-on-time kind of job.

As a big-city leader, Emanuel now feels the sting of Beltway paralysis. He got exercised talking about the Export-Import Bank, which Congress voted to reauthorize this week after a long battle. House Republicans, for instance, were torn between business groups that support the bank and conservative organizations that want it abolished.

“They take something that everybody’s agreed [to] for 60 years and make it a six-month effort to get things financed,” Emanuel says. “So a tractor made here in Joliet can be exported to South Korea or Colombia. If you open up the markets, it’s kind of nutty not to have the financing to go with it.

“I understand you want to have a big debate about war, which we should have. The country shouldn’t casually go into it. You want to have a big debate about tax policy, you want to have a big debate about not the size of government, what it should do, what it shouldn’t do, and if it’s going to do something, how to do it differently. Those are good debates. Financing exports?”

As White House chief of staff for two years, Emanuel was a key player in the president’s unsuccessful efforts to compromise with Republicans on the Hill, only to receive virtually no help on economic stimulus and health care. He defends those efforts, saying Obama “tried to find common ground … But once you repeatedly get rejected, you’ve got to be ready to go your own way, and the president’s shown that.”

But don’t Democrats bear some responsibility for government gridlock? “I don’t think anyone is immune from that sense of dysfunction,” says Emanuel, who stays in touch with Obama. “On the other hand, one party is more responsible.”

His shift in focus from presidents to potholes has brought another unmistakable change. I’ve known him a long time, and the hard-charging warrior who once sent an opponent a dead fish seems to have toned it down, at least in public. In fact, Rahm got through the entire interview without dropping a single F-bomb.