When a dozen former White House chiefs of staff met for breakfast a month after the election to give the incoming guy some advice, the old-timer among them had some special, reassuring words for Rahm Emanuel. Former Bush Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had been a White House chief of staff under Gerald Ford, noted that Emanuel has a leg up on some of his predecessors. Unlike many chiefs of staff, Emanuel comes to the job with the experience of having been a power player on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. "You've been here before, so you know the place," Rumsfeld told him. "And you've been on Capitol Hill, which is so important."
Emanuel was only half joking when he answered, "Those are also my liabilities."
The new White House chief of staff modestly recalled Rumsfeld's statement earlier this week to TIME while rushing between pre-Inaugural events. It's fair to say all of Washington is wondering just how Emanuel is going to fare in what has long been the second hardest job in Washington. Emanuel honed his political skills as a top aide to Bill Clinton in the White House, where he was instrumental in shepherding the North American Free Trade Agreement and welfare reform through Congress. After a stint in investment banking in Chicago, Emanuel returned to Washington as an Illinois Congressman, rose quickly through the House leadership and masterminded the Democrats' takeover of the House in 2006.
Though they hail from the same state, the new President and his chief of staff are an unusual pair. Two years before Barack Obama was elected President, Emanuel jokingly noted as much in a speech at Washington's annual white-tie Gridiron Club dinner: "Senator Obama and I don't just share a home state. We also share exotic names that were given to us by our fathers--Barack, which in Swahili means 'blessed,' and Rahm, which, roughly translated from Hebrew, means 'go screw yourself.'"
A foulmouthed showman and backroom infighter, Emanuel has been known to manage, motivate and intimidate by standing on a table and screaming. And yet the early signs of how he will be running things at the no-drama Obama White House are auspicious: Emanuel, 49, has run the smoothest presidential transition in modern history. Obama "is thrilled with him," says David Axelrod, the President's chief political strategist. "He has said he's sure he made the right decision on this one."
Obama insiders credit the new chief of staff for many of the transition team's more agile moves. Take the agonizing choice of a Secretary of the Treasury. Obama's personal inclination was to tap New York Federal Reserve chief Timothy Geithner, who had been intricately involved in devising last year's $700 billion financial-bailout package. But he also wanted the expertise of the ferociously brainy Larry Summers, who had held the Treasury job and wanted it again. So Obama and Emanuel worked out a deal to get both by convincing Summers to take a post inside the White House as director of the National Economic Council. As a top Obama White House aide put it, "A lot of this was making people understand that there was a lot of work to go around and you could be a valuable member of the team."