Editorial: Rahm Emanuel in President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet? We could see it

The Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read

“Someone like Rahm Emanuel would be a pretty divisive pick,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., recently said about the former Chicago mayor possibly joining President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet. “And it would signal, I think, a hostile approach to the grassroots and the progressive wing of the party.”

Rahm Emanuel … divisive.

As we think back on Emanuel’s two terms as Chicago’s mayor, from May 2011 to May 2019, it’s notable how many colorful descriptions fit his outlook, temperament and skill set: Demanding, aggressive, politically shrewd, business-savvy, enterprising, tightly wound, aloof, self-promoting, foul-mouthed.

He’s “Mayor 1%” for making the downtown area glitter. He’s a Washington, D.C., insider for having been a member of Congress and chief of staff to former President Barack Obama. He’s a Wall Street tycoon for earning some $18 million during a brief stint in the banking industry.

“Divisive” works too, but not for the reasons Rep. Ocasio-Cortez would cite. Emanuel’s record is easy to cherry-pick to seem better or worse. While mayor of Chicago, he pushed City Hall to taper irresponsible borrowing and forced tax hikes to cover pension costs. But he should have done more sooner. He only embraced real pension reform through a constitutional amendment on his way out the door.

He made Chicago more attractive for corporate employers, business travelers and tourists but didn’t do much to lift the struggling South and West sides. He micromanaged his police chief but couldn’t get violent crime under control.

And most controversial, he is associated with the police shooting of Laquan McDonald and City Hall’s attempts to cover it up by settling out of court with McDonald’s family and fighting in court the release of dashcam video. That was the primary reason Emanuel stepped aside rather than seek a third term — growing voter distrust. Emanuel insisted he never saw the video and wasn’t fully aware of the city’s lawyers fighting its release. But from a hands-on manager, his defense strained credulity.

During the Democratic National Convention in 2016, he was viewed as a liability, not invited to speak, criticized in a party-produced video for his Obamacare stance — Emanuel opposed the health care initiative and advised Obama to dump it — and he didn’t sit with other dignitaries in the convention hall. It added up to an overt jab from the outgoing administration. But Emanuel seems to have repaired his reputation since. ABC News hired him as a contributor and he is a regular guest on pundit shows, wrote a book, and worked with the Biden campaign to get him elected.

Does the Laquan McDonald case disqualify Emanuel from going back to Washington? That will be for Biden administration officials to decide — to weigh against Emanuel’s governing and political experience, his high-octane metabolism and his negotiating skills for a role as transportation secretary, one position for which he is said to be a candidate.

Reportedly, Emanuel wants the job. He was an economic adviser to Biden during the campaign and talked up support for the next administration to pursue a major infrastructure program, which by definition would be a transportation project. “I think we should be for rebuilding America,” Emanuel said.

A $1 trillion investment in highways, bridges, etc., is one of the few significant policy proposals where Democrats and Republicans usually find agreement, and transportation secretary is one of Washington’s least divisive assignments. It’s as close a Cabinet position gets to being bipartisan because everyone understands the economic necessity of infrastructure. Ray LaHood, the Republican former congressman from Peoria, Illinois, was Obama’s transportation secretary for four years and has praised Emanuel’s work ethic and ability to get things done.

You might say transportation is also in Emanuel’s wheelhouse because big city mayors grasp the importance of mass transit and road maintenance. Chicago, at the crossroads of the country, is a crucial rail hub. Every day, 1,300 freight and passenger trains move through Chicago. O’Hare International Airport is the country’s third busiest.

One of Emanuel’s strengths as mayor was his commitment to building up Chicago’s position as a global center for business and tourism. He recognized O’Hare’s key role: If business travelers and tourists find it easy to come and go to points around the world, Chicago will be in a great position to grow. That’s why Emanuel worked hard to nail down a $8.5 billion deal to update the airport.

Emanuel has experience in the bond market, which would benefit a transportation secretary because governments use debt to fund infrastructure. He’s got a visionary side, too: He entertained Elon Musk’s futuristic notion of building a superfast underground tube system to whisk passengers in pods between downtown and O’Hare. Crazy, yes, but the future of transportation always sounds fantastical until it becomes reality.

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism of Emanuel touches on personality but focuses on the political. She is one of the leaders of the progressive wing in Congress. He is a pragmatic, moderate and ambitious Democrat — a former investment banker who worked for President Bill Clinton and once aspired to become House speaker. The legacy of his worst days as mayor — the McDonald shooting, out-of-control violent crime, struggles to implement police reforms — also make him unpopular with progressives.

Biden, of course, won the presidency seeking middle ground. If he thinks Emanuel is a good fit for a Cabinet job, we could see it happen. Emanuel’s got the resume to be transportation secretary. And he likes to keep moving.

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