Anyone who has ever been close to presidential power knows that personnel is policy. Nothing makes so strong a statement about the direction of a new administration as the people a president-elect chooses for the cabinet and the myriad boards and commissions that can seize or relinquish governing mandates. And no statement from President-elect Joe Biden could be worse than the selection of former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for a top job on the team Biden is now assembling.
There is widespread speculation that Emanuel might be selected as secretary of transportation or as the next United States trade representative. Were Biden to nominate the Chicagoan for either post, he would signal a callous disregard for concerns raised about a record of governing malpractice so egregious that Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rightly identifies it as “disqualifying for public leadership.” But this is not just about adding insult to injury. If past is prologue, empowering Emanuel would undermine not just Biden’s presidency but also his party’s prospects in the 2022 and 2024 elections.
Emanuel’s service in the last two Democratic administrations—as senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and as President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff—was crudely divisive. He went out of his way to stamp on those administrations a neoliberal brand that would haunt the party for decades after he headed off to pursue his own personal and political ambitions. It was Emanuel who was the lead strategist in bitter fights for the North American Free Trade Agreement and a host of other economic arrangements that divided the party against itself and left Democrats vulnerable to attack for selling out working-class Americans. It was Emanuel who battled against an expansive vision of the Affordable Care Act at a time when bold reform was not just possible but necessary. It was Emanuel who was accused of spewing obscenities at union members who wanted to do more to save the domestic auto industry (“Fuck the UAW!”) and at progressives who wanted to ramp up the fight for a public option in the ACA (“fucking retarded”).
People’s Action Director George Goehl summarized some of the reasons Biden should reject Emanuel: “Under the Clinton and Obama administrations, he attacked public benefits for people in poverty and blocked immigration reform. Appointing Rahm Emanuel would show that the Democratic Party sees no harm in its culture of ‘failing up’ which gives more power to electeds who fail to govern and consultants who fail to win elections.”
But Emanuel’s D.C. record is just the beginning of the case against his selection.
After leaving the Obama White House just prior to the disastrous 2010 mid-term election, Emanuel took his cruel blend of neoliberal politics and personal vindictiveness to Chicago. His two terms as mayor were characterized by reckless and politically self-serving responses to police violence and to demands for education, health care, and housing. Emanuel’s mayoral tenure was so divisive that more than 7,000 Chicagoans and their allies have signed a “Keep Rahm Away from the White House” petition promoted by City Council member Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez.
“In case you’re unaware,” the petition reads, “allow us to acquaint you with Rahm’s resume in some key policy areas”:
- Covered up the police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014. McDonald’s killing—police shot him 16 times, including while he lay on the ground—was a catalyst of the Black Lives Matter movement and doomed Rahm’s political future in the city.
- Closed 50 elementary schools—the single largest school closure in US history—over an outcry from parents, students and community members. Most of the schools served African American children on the south and west sides of the city.
- Shuttered half of Chicago’s public mental health clinics, leaving patients in need of care literally sitting on the sidewalk outside of the locked doors and pleading for help.
- Lavished wealthy neighborhoods and pet projects with public dollars through Tax Increment Financing (TIF). Rahm’s greatest TIF hits—this is an economic development tool that’s supposed to fight “blight,” mind you—include $55 million to buy DePaul University a new basketball stadium, millions funneled to Navy Pier through an elaborate shell game, and another $1.3 billion given in subsidies for luxury mega-developments on his way out the door.
- Repeatedly broke the city’s promises to rebuild public housing, while blocking an ordinance improving transparency in the mismanaged Chicago Housing Authority. The deficit in affordable housing, combined with staggering and deeply regressive property-tax hikes, were factors in the exodus of tens of thousands of Black residents from Chicago during his term.
- Hyped a failed plan to build an express train from downtown Chicago to O’Hare airport that would bypass the transit used by actual Chicagoans. The boondoggle, hatched by Rahm campaign donor Elon Musk, was widely panned; one alderman called it a scheme “mostly for tourists and Musk’s reputation.”
- Oversaw a police department that cost taxpayers more than $540 million in abuse and misconduct settlements during his time in office.
- Rejected public referenda calling for an elected school board, instead handpicking school CEOs such as Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was sent to federal prison after pleading guilty on a multimillion-dollar kickback scheme involving Chicago Public Schools money.
- Went on a privatization spree, to disastrous effect. Selling off everything from school janitorial services to trash collection, privatization left Chicago with indignities such as dirty classrooms and one of the nation’s most abysmal recycling rates.
The opposition in Chicago, where people know Emanuel best, is so intense that Streetsblog Chicago, a news site that covers sustainable transportation issues, recently warned, “Hiring Rahm Emanuel as U.S. transportation chief is the bad idea that refuses to go away. Joe Biden, you really don’t want to kick off your administration with hundreds or thousands of justifiably angry Chicagoans marching in protest.”
Chicagoans are particularly upset over the idea of handing Emanuel the Department of Transportation post because, Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa notes, “as Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel’s big transportation idea was to give Elon Musk public resources to put a car in an over-priced and unnecessary tunnel from downtown to O’Hare Airport. The thought of Emanuel as Biden’s Secretary of Transportation is asinine.”
The prospect stirs opposition beyond Chicago, as well. “We do not need a union buster setting the rules for workers in aviation,” argues Association of Flight Attendants president Sara Nelson. “That just doesn’t reflect Joe Biden’s deep commitment to workers and our unions.”
That goes double for the trade representative job, where Emanuel would again be positioned to promote Wall Street–friendly agreements, such as NAFTA and permanent normalization of trade relations with China. Those deals stirred deep frustration among dislocated workers, which would eventually be exploited by Donald Trump, who made an argument that Democrats had abandoned working-class communities central to his 2016 campaign.
Bringing Emanuel into a third Democratic administration “would be perceived as a slap in the face to labor,” explains Shane Larson, the senior director for government affairs for the powerful Communication Workers of America union. “It would be received very poorly.”
The debate over Emanuel is about more than the usual jockeying over whether a Democratic administration tilts to the left or the center. Indeed, as AOC notes, it is “a truly embarrassing indictment of what’s considered ‘center’ politics in the US that objecting to the appointment of an official who helped cover up the murder of a Black child is deemed the ‘progressive, far left’ position.” This is about the very real damage Emanuel has done—on matters of policy and politics—and that he will again do if he joins a new Democratic administration.
Political common sense indicates Representative-elect Jamaal Bowman of New York, is right when he says, “Rahm Emanuel should not be considered for any position within the Biden administration.”