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Drama Club

How Obama handles people.

The morning after the presidential election, a group of top Obama staffers and consultants gathered for brunch at a restaurant a few blocks from their Chicago headquarters. The mood was understandably emotional, and, before long, chief strategist David Axelrod rose to offer a valedictory. According to one person in the room, Axelrod lavished praise on his operatives for their discretion, for their collegiality, and for their resistance to all manner of Washington-think.

But, even as Axelrod spoke, a burst of Washington-style drama was making a mockery of these virtues. Late the previous night, the blogger Josh Marshall had gotten word that Illinois Representative Rahm Emanuel would sign on as Obama's White House chief of staff--a leak that likely emanated from Emanuel's office. But, when msnbc confirmed the news Wednesday afternoon, Emanuel aides scrambled to deny it. By the following morning, it was more like "yes and no," as Emanuel publicly weighed the pluses and minuses of a White House move. On the one hand, he told reporters, there was the possibility of being "chief of staff to a historic presidency at a historic time." On the other, he'd be walking away from a chance of "rising into leadership" in the House. Mercifully, a final leak arrived soon after: Emanuel would take the job.

Emanuel's hiring seemed to hint at a newfound taste for big, unruly personalities on the part of the drama-averse president-elect. In addition to being less discreet than the typical Obama staffer, Emanuel is known as one of the most volatile and profane people ever to don a congressional lapel pin. (Obama once joked that Emanuel became "practically mute" when he lost half his middle finger in a meat-slicing accident.)

And yet, as Obama personnel decisions go, Emanuel wasn't the first head- scratcher. In making his vice-presidential selection, Obama passed over the famously circumspect Evan Bayh for the famously undisciplined Joe Biden. Insiders expect Obama's roster of big personalities to keep growing. Larry Summers, the impolitic former president of Harvard, is by all accounts a top contender for Treasury secretary. New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, late of the view that homosexuality is a "choice," is a leading candidate for secretary of state. Is Obama's militantly disciplined campaign becoming your standard messy presidency?

Deep into the primary campaign, as it appeared the contest might never end, top Obama aides took to sporting shirts that blared "Stop the Drama Vote Obama. " At the time, it was widely interpreted as a joking directive to voters and superdelegates. But the more subtle point may have been to invite a contrast with Hillaryland. Unlike the operatic Clinton operation, the Obama campaign was remarkably free of dysfunction and sloppy mistakes. This is partly because the candidate attracted true believers, especially in the early going, when Hillary seemed like a lock. Obama and his top brass also understood that the path to victory for a first-term, African American senator was precarious. It wouldn't take many stumbles--witness the gale-force reaction to Obama's "bitter ... cling" comment--to sink the entire enterprise.

Still, the idea that everyone in Obamaland marched in happy lockstep was always more perception than reality. "People do disagree with each other, with decisions made by [Obama]," one veteran Obamanaut says of the lockstep myth. For that matter, even the "happy" part isn't entirely right. "Steve Hildebrand wanted to kill me a few times," says Kirk Wagar, Obama's Florida finance chairman, of his early interactions with the deputy campaign manager. "I was like 'You need to do this.' He'd be like, 'You're just a finance guy.' I'd go, 'Fuck you.'"

Obama kept these battles off the public radar, however, by instituting an ethos lifted from the corporate boardroom: Dissent was encouraged, but, once a decision was made, as the campaign veteran put it, "everyone gets on board." "The deal was everyone got to be one-hundred-percent straight," says Wagar. "But, when it's over, it's over."

In this environment, Axelrod often loomed as the enforcer. Colleagues say his work on John Edwards's fractious presidential effort in 2004 was a searing experience he hoped never to repeat. At one point in the campaign, a former Obama aide said he could no longer talk to me because the Obama strategist was upset with him. Axelrod's business partner, campaign manager David Plouffe, instilled a similar ethic, ruling Obamaland by way of an implicit, don't-screw-with-me, threat. "Plouffe doesn't take any shit," says one aide. "He's the nicest guy in the world. He's never yelling. But he makes himself very clear."

It was, of course , the addition of Joe Biden that dealt an initial body-blow to Obamaland's disciplined corporate culture. Biden committed his first gaffe even before the end of his coming-out speech, referring to his new boss as "Barack America." In his early days on the trail, he publicly suggested Clinton would have made a better running-mate and mistakenly name-checked a future "Biden administration."

But, far from an aberration, the Biden pick reflects a side of Obama that's often overlooked: His taste in confidants runs toward the strong-willed and direct. Thanks to his writer's sensibility, Obama tends to view such specimens with anthropological fascination. Lest anyone forget, he chose as his pastor Jeremiah Wright, a man who rivals Laurence Olivier in his flair for the dramatic. These days, one of Obama's most trusted aides is a salty Southerner named Robert Gibbs, who first signed on as a communications strategist for the 2004 Senate race. Gibbs is known for his unyielding bluntness with the boss. One day at the outset of his Senate term, Obama sidled up to Gibbs and asked him to name the president of Tanzania. "Who the fuck cares?" was Gibbs's response, according to Obama biographer David Mendell. Obama began to laugh.

Obama, in fact, seems to crave such pushback. His years as a law professor have made Socratic dialogue his chief intellectual reflex. "The most awkward moment on a conference call is when he says, 'Okay, anybody disagree?' and there's just silence," says the aide. "He wants to make sure he's fully explored the issue before we move on." One of Obama's most valued economic advisers in recent months has been former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, partly because he opposed a stimulus package long after the rest of the economic team endorsed it. (Volcker eventually came around.)

All of which is to say that, for Obama, there may be such a thing as the wrong kind of drama and the right kind. Certainly it would have been hard to imagine him bringing on a notorious infighter like Clinton strategist Mark Penn (whom multiple Obamanauts cited as an example of the former). On the other hand, Emanuel and Biden both have reputations for being highly opinionated and unfailingly loyal. Biden embodies the blue-collar code of his Scranton upbringing. As for Emanuel, Rolling Stone once reported that, at a dinner after the 1992 campaign, he began stabbing the table with a steak knife as he pronounced Bill Clinton's enemies "dead."

The question is whether Obama can maintain this distinction between good and bad drama in the otherworldly vortex of the White House. The whole point of locating the campaign in Chicago was, after all, to keep aides out of the nation's capital, where rumor-mongering and backbiting are semiofficial sports. On top of which, there's simply no way a government of several million federal employees will ever be as cohesive as a campaign of around 800. The latter had many egos but only one mission: to elect Obama president. By contrast, the White House will have dozens of competing missions--health care reform, energy, education, etc.--all with strong internal constituencies. And, whereas the Obama campaign benefited from the underdog mindset of its true believers, an Obama administration will attract every ambitious law-school grad along the Amtrak corridor.

Already, there are signs of strain. Overshadowed by Emanuel's Hamlet routine was the unintentional rollout of Gibbs as White House press secretary, which transition officials first pushed back against, then grudgingly acknowledged. This week, Obama honchos beat back rumors that former secretary of state Warren Christopher, a man many Democrats associate with concave-chested wimpiness, would help guide the State Department transition. An e-mail asking foreign policy aides to stiff the press quickly found its way to Politico ; internal discussions about Guantanamo leaked to the Associated Press. Other personnel news keeps gushing forth prematurely: Reports have former Clintonista Patti Solis Doyle in a senior White House job and former Gore aide Ron Klain as Biden's chief of staff.

This is not exactly the new politics Obama promised on the stump. While it's tough to say what the president-elect thinks of all the loose talk, there's some indication it grates on him. Take Biden's inexplicable observation, late in the campaign, that "an international crisis" would greet a President Obama. In response, Obama damned his running-mate with his "likeable enough" best, deadpanning that Biden was prone to "rhetorical flourishes." Something tells you Obama may endure a lot more rhetorical flourishes in the months to come.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.

This article originally ran in the December 3, 2008, issue of the magazine.