Obama campaign turns to Rahm Emanuel, the ‘Democrats’ Karl Rove’

President Obama’s reelection campaign is taking strategic advice from former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, whom one operative described as the “Democratic Party’s Karl Rove.”

Emanuel, a friend of both campaign manager Jim Messina and senior strategist and fellow Chicagoan David Axelrod, periodically weighs in “very clearly” on what the campaign should be doing, a Democratic official said.

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The pugnacious Emanuel, who left the White House for a successful bid to become Chicago’s mayor, came to Obama’s defense last week when news reports surfaced that the Ricketts family — which owns the Chicago Cubs — was considering launching a $10 million campaign against Obama tied to his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

Emanuel, who was said to be “livid,” allegedly cut off ties, at least temporarily, with the family.

“The Ricketts have tried to contact the mayor, but he’s said that he does not want to talk with them today, tomorrow or anytime soon,” an aide told The Washington Post.

Emanuel officially moved on from Obama-world two years ago after playing an instrumental role in pushing healthcare reform into law with his strong-arm tactics (and the occasional F-bomb).

This week he hosted his former boss and other international leaders at the NATO summit.

When the president and first lady Michelle Obama landed in Chicago on Saturday night for the summit, Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule, were waiting at the airport to greet them. But it wasn’t just any ordinary airport meet-and-greet. The two couples exchanged hugs and boarded Marine One together for the chopper ride into the heart of their hometown.

Those who know the blunt, hot-tempered Emanuel well say it’s a smart move for Obama’s campaign to include him in its discussions.

“He’s one of our best strategists, he’s the Democratic Party’s Karl Rove,” said one source who has known Emanuel for years. “He still has that gift and that strategic mind that any sitting Democratic president running for reelection would want.”

“Rahm is one of the smartest political tacticians out there,” added a former Obama White House senior official. “And the bonus he brings to the table is he knows all the personalities involved. I can’t think of a better advocate.”

Since moving back to Chicago, Emanuel has served an active role in Obama’s reelection campaign, time and again hosting fundraisers and playing the role of one of the president’s advocates.

Speaking at the Jefferson Jackson dinner in Iowa late last year, the former chief of staff delivered a fiery defense of the president’s policies.

“In the next four years, there will be more challenges and more crises that will determine the economic vitality of the middle class and the economic future of this country,” Emanuel said at the dinner. “Whose character, whose judgment do you want in that office? 

The move to cut off ties with the Ricketts family reflected the mayor’s strong commitment to his old friend and their relationship, which has been strained at times.

“My sense is that the relationship has gotten a lot better since Rahm left the White House,” said one Emanuel observer. “Mostly because the pressure is off.”

Jodi Kantor, the New York Times reporter who wrote about Emanuel’s complex relationship with the president in her recent book, The Obamas, said in an interview that the two men had fundamental philosophical and strategic differences in the way they approached their jobs.

While Obama “placed a lot of emphasis on civility,” Kantor said, Emanuel “had this hugely theatrical style” and his blow-ups and cantankerous style “really bothered the president.”

The differences between Obama and Emanuel were also on display during the healthcare debate. “Emanuel wanted to be politically cautious,” Kantor said, while “the president felt he was elected to do big things.”

Tensions culminated the summer before the midterm elections, Kantor said, when the chief of staff — who played a major role in the 2006 Democratic takeover in Congress — had an incredibly deep investment in the 2010 election. 

“For him to watch that melt away was incredibly difficult,” Kantor said. “That’s when the relationship became somewhat unsustainable.”

But those who are familiar with the relationship say it’s now back on track and as strong as ever.

While Emanuel’s focus is on Chicago, these sources say, he is keeping an eye on Washington, too.

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