The development has been remarkable for a man in Emanuel's job, which calls for him to adopt a behind-the-scenes role similar to that of a Mafia boss's consigliere, whispering advice in the ear of the president and then strong-arming political targets into obeying his master's will.
But critics say the row shows just how much of a strain Obama's first year of office has taken on his top White House team after a series of political setbacks, especially over healthcare. Officials in Obama's administration, who once appeared so united, now seem to be in siege mode and starting to fight among themselves.
"It was inevitable that this would happen on one level. You have a president with an ambitious agenda and they have not been getting as much done as they had hoped," said John Geer, editor of the Journal of Politics and a political scientist at Vanderbilt University.
The worsening atmosphere could become particularly difficult for Emanuel if November's mid-term elections turn into a Democratic rout. "Rahm Emanuel is burning the candle at both ends. I would not be surprised if he steps down after the mid-terms," Geer said.
By the standards of the Obama White House, the fight around Emanuel has been unusually public and appears to have employed many of the dirty tricks of media manipulation. It began when some public figures on the left of the party, including prominent bloggers and members of thinktanks, began to call for his resignation, accusing him of being a closet conservative who had failed to get meaningful healthcare reform and other liberal policy through Congress. One, the influential Jane Hamsher of the blog Firedoglake, even said the Justice Department should investigate him.
That growing chorus appears to have forced Emanuel – or, more likely, his supporters – to launch a counter-attack. A column in the Washington Post by the highly respected sketch-writer Dana Milbank reported that Emanuel had set up his own press outreach operation, separate to that of other top White House aides such as press secretary Robert Gibbs and top adviser Valerie Jarrett. It also stuck the knife into those aides and other senior Obama advisers, blaming them for Obama's problems.