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Beltway abuzz with talk of who could replace Emanuel as chief of staff

Washington is abuzz over who will replace White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel should he choose to leave his position to run for mayor of Chicago.

Most of the city seems to think that Emanuel already has one foot out the door. He has made no secret of his desire to be the Windy City’s mayor, and the schedule for the campaign means he has to make a decision fast.

White House senior adviser David Axelrod on Wednesday said Emanuel would make a decision soon.

The sudden and likely vacancy, just eight weeks out from the midterm elections, has sparked typical Washington speculative fervor, rumor mills and some wishful thinking.

The Hill talked to a number of Democratic strategists and some liberal critics of President Obama's current chief of staff to gather thoughts on who they think should be managing the White House.

Ron Klain, Vice President Joe Biden's chief of staff, was one name that surfaced repeatedly.

"Klain is smart, well respected, has broad experience in DC/policy/campaigns (Obama is entering re-election) and comes from within the White House but is not part of the current inner-circle,” one Democratic strategist who worked in the Clinton administration said in an e-mail.

The strategist noted that Leon Panetta, Erskine Bowles and Tony Podesta, all former high-ranking aides to former President Bill Clinton, have been mentioned as possible contenders. Tom Donilon, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, is also being mentioned.

While Donilon has a wide range of experience in both the political and policy arenas, his time lobbying for Fannie Mae could knock him out of the running.

All four would give Obama a veteran hand in dealing with what could be Republican majorities in the next House or even Senate. However, the strategist from the Clinton administration questioned whether any of those mentioned would want to return to the grind of what is known as the toughest job in Washington.

Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle would also give Obama an adviser with deep experience in Washington. Daschle was thought by many to be on the president's short list for chief of staff before Obama picked Emanuel.

But liberals are perpetually angry and dissatisfied with Obama's White House — largely because they see Emanuel as a wet blanket on Obama's true liberal self — and they say Daschle is a non-starter.

Adam Green, co-founder of the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Obama's new right-hand man or woman has to be “someone who will work with, and not against, the progressive movement — and someone who will be willing to fight, and not cater to, big corporations and Republicans.”

“A corporate lobbyist like Daschle would meet instant ridicule,” Green said.

Perhaps the biggest concern for the White House is finding someone who will give the appearance of new blood but also have the institutional knowledge and relationships to be effective.

While Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett's name is being tossed around, many strategists think that picking her would send a bad message of a president clinging to an echo chamber even as the economy struggles.

“The obvious would be Jarrett, but I think the president needs to shake things up,” a second Democratic strategist said. “He needs somebody who will bring progressives (the professional left) back into the fold — they never liked Rahm — but who can still really push things on the Hill and keep order within the administration.”

Another strategist said the new pick has to be media friendly and able to help sell Obama's message.

“I think it should be someone with a face that can go on TV and appeal to the American people with gravitas or energy and/or exuding confidence in the Republic,” the second Democratic strategist said.

“It should also be someone from outside the Obama campaign or current White House insider.”

The third strategist suggested Trade Representative Ron Kirk would be a good pick.

"He’s a Texan — moderate,” the strategist said of the former mayor of Dallas.

“A former politician; knows real people. . . .Was the president’s mentor on his Senate race and has been in the administration so they have a great relationship and he can stand up to Axelrod and the others.”

Obama could turn to the Senate to pick a successor. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has been mentioned by some observers, though picking Warner could hand Republicans in the Senate a purple seat. Warner is not up for reelection for four years.

Timing is a big issue, the third strategist said. And with Democrats in big trouble this November, one strategist suggested Obama would have a lot more options if the White House could wait until after the elections.

“Frankly, I'm sure they wish they had more time to make a decision,” the third strategist said. “There very well might be some unemployed members of Congress come November.”


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