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The West Wing After Rahm Emanuel

The chief of staff could be gone by next week. What that could mean for the administration.

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Nicholas Kamm / AFP-Getty Images

It was only hours after his election as president that Barack Obama made his first staff appointment. The hire was Rahm Emanuel, the foul-mouthed, arm-twisting congressman from Illinois who seemed to run counter to Obama’s hope and change mantra. But it made sense. If Obama was the visionary conciliator, Emanuel was the bad cop—the one who could actually make change happen on such issues as health-care reform, revised financial regulations, and drawing down America’s commitments overseas.

Emanuel helped check off those boxes, but it wasn’t until his political mentor, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, announced his retirement that the chief of staff started eyeing the West Wing exits. Administration sources indicate Emanuel will announce his departure by the end of this week to start a campaign for the job. He could be gone by next week.

Any staff shake-up is subject to the endless reading of tea leaves. "What does it say about Obama?" is a favorite gum-chewing question of cable pundits. Then there’s the inevitable matter of who will replace him. Then the historians get involved, prodding at how long President Bush went until he had to replace his chief of staff (six years) and then, to balance things out, President Clinton (one year).

Politico’s Mike Allen has a potential rundown of how a replacement will be chosen and installed. Odds are, Pete Rouse, a senior adviser who managed Obama’s transition in 2008, will become the interim officeholder through November. From there, a coterie of senior administration advisers, including Rouse, would be in the running for the permanent gig.

The West Wing dynamic will no doubt change without the bombastic Emanuel. But how? Rouse, Tom Donilon (deputy national-security adviser), and Ron Klain (Joe Biden’s chief of staff) are much more subdued than Emanuel, suggesting a lower-profile role than the one he has carved out. But none is as familiar with the complex dynamics of Capitol Hill as Emanuel, who was once considered a possible future speaker of the House.

Obama likes to say, and demonstrate, that he prefers hearing lots of opposing viewpoints before he makes big decisions. One of the most high-profile cases of the past year—as illuminated by my colleague Jon Alter in his book on Obama’s first year, The Promise—was when Emanuel suggested health-care reform be passed piecemeal, a little at a time, to avoid partisan gridlock and souring the electorate. Obama didn’t listen to him. But only in the way that good friends and trusted allies sometimes tire of taking advice from each other.

Ultimately, whoever takes Emanuel's place sets the new pace for the administration. The job description? There's an old episode of The West Wing, the NBC drama, in which the president, played by Martin Sheen, explains to the secretary of agriculture (the one cabinet member chosen to sit out in case of a catastrophic event) that the chief of staff ends up becoming the president’s best friend, most trusted ally, and always ahead of the next day's news. That’s all.

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