Rahm Emanuel on Post-Pandemic Politics

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Shoko Takayasu/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rahm Emanuel has worn a lot of hats in his long political career, or as he notes in the latest episode of On With Kara Swisher, “It’s not like my Wikipedia page is empty.” He worked on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, then in his White House. He was later elected to the House of Representatives as an Illinois congressman (where he chaired the DCCC), before serving as Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff, then went on serve two terms as the mayor of Chicago. Now he’s serving another Democratic president, this time as U.S. Ambassador to Japan. So of course, in addition to asking Emanuel to about the newly strengthened ties between the U.S. and Japan, and about his repeated public criticism of China as ambassador, Kara also brought up the 2024 presidential-race rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. In the excerpt below, Ambassador Emanuel explains how East Asia is viewing the upcoming election and why he thinks a major factor in the race will be how the U.S. body politic is still suffering from a kind of long COVID.

On With Kara Swisher

Journalist Kara Swisher brings the news and newsmakers to you twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays.

Kara Swisher: So I got a question from somebody you go way back with and it’s actually about Japan, but also I want to shift a little bit to domestic politics. But it’s a perfect shift. David Axelrod. Let’s hear his question.

David Axelrod: Hey Ram, it’s your old buddy from Chicago calling. I’m curious about just how much time you’re spending these days answering questions and providing therapy for leaders in Japan and Asia about our presidential elections. How high is their anxiety about the uncertainties, and just how difficult does that make your ability to strike long-term deals? And Ram, don’t try and bullshit Kara. She’s way too smart for that.

Swisher: Thank you, David.

Rahm Emanuel: I can’t believe the guy that signed my ketubah at my wedding decided to do that question.

Swisher: All right, but there it is. It’s a good question.

Emanuel: Yeah.

Swisher: It’s a good question.

Emanuel: The honest answer is: I spend time on it. It’s not the most dominant, but it’s not the sixth out of the top five. And the United States, people are making a long-term bet on the United States. President Biden, I think, you can say different things about him, but I can say this as a friend, but also as somebody that works for him: incredible investor in allies and alliances. That’s just not Donald Trump’s approach. He made Korea, but I can’t say for Japan, feel very insecure that this was basically a real-estate deal. Why do we have these military commitments? So, it’s a question that gets raised.

Swisher: Is the worry high? Is the worry high that we’re going to have more visits with the North Korean leader?

Emanuel: They’re very cognizant of American politics because it’s intimately involved in their strategic security and their strategic posture. And so they watch American politics. They’re very cognizant of it. And they’re very cognizant because the approach to Japan is starkly different. It’s not kind of nuanced.

Swisher: So worried? Would you characterize them as worried?

Emanuel: In February of 2024, I wouldn’t say worry, but obviously as we get closer and closer to election, the interest in it is increasing at every level. That’s a fact. And we have — I don’t think, you’ve obviously talked to a lot of experts beforehand. I don’t think any one of them did not tell you that this relationship is in a different place than it was over the last 20 years. And so we’re making real progress, you don’t want to see that come to a screeching halt because Japan — we’re going from a hub and spoke to a lattice system of which Japan is the constant in that strategic vision.

Swisher: So, a lot of concern about Biden, despite his enormous legislative wins and the excellent health of the economy, given the tumult we’ve been through post pandemic. People are talking about his age, his handling of Afghanistan, and more recently his position on Gaza with the Palestinians. One of the polls released last week had him ahead, a poll ahead of Trump. The one by NBC, though, this week, had him far behind Trump on the economy, which is inexplicable, which is cooking with gas now. Talk about what the, from your perspective, the key indicators of the race are right now. How are you looking at this and what do you, what do you think is happening here? And you’re not living in the United States, but you obviously pay attention.

Emanuel: Yeah, I mean, it is interesting having always been in the, what I call Disneyland on the Potomac, when you get 8,000 miles away, your perspective on things. So I mean, one, I’ll get right to the election, but I think this is true in all, in Europe, United States, you know how we always talk about long haul COVID on the body, the impact? I think there’s long haul COVID on the body politic. I think there’s a massive turmoil and discontent. Some of it’s economic, some of it is legitimately cultural as well as economic. And I think COVID kind of snapped something, and so I call it the long haul COVID in the body politic. And I look at this election and if I was to give you — and again I gotta be careful. I gotta watch—

Swisher: Please don’t.

Emanuel: I know. I can see that. Teasing me here. I gotta make sure my my bad juju jeans—

Swisher: You know you want to.

Emanuel: I gotta still remember I’m a diplomat and I’m not allowed to be partisan.

Swisher: You wanna say you called the code red. Go ahead.

Emanuel: I gotta be wearing the Michigan-dad baseball cap to do that. We just went through a period of time where for the first time, a public-health crisis changed your kid’s school and it started in some other country. You just had like a conflict and now you have massive inflation. And so things that were happening outside of the United States have now come right to the front door into your kitchen table. Your kids are going to a four-day school [week]. Your spouse or partner is now still working at the dining-room table when you’re hoping to get to the office. So things have just — and they want everything back to order, [to] calm down.

Now, again, I want to be careful. One of the things in like the CNN poll that I thought was interesting — if you were looking at the campaign slightly in the mezzanine, not in the front row or on the bench — 62 percent of the country thought that President Biden was from the mainstream. They think he’s honest — I forgot the exact honest number — but even with all partisanship, those are good numbers. And yet by almost equal number, I think it was over 60 [percent], thought that Trump was from the extreme. And I think there’s a thread there that captures, slightly, the mood of the country, slightly, the election, where a lot of people think about — and especially when you’re in the presidential race — issues matter in the presidential, but character for a chief executive has a bigger role to play than it does in the legislative election. And I think there’s a peace about Joe Biden that I think — and again, I gotta be careful here — that I think will resonate, with where the mood of the country is going.

And every election has a story. Every election. When, after President Obama’s eight years, Hillary was continuity, Trump was change, and the Zeitgeist was not towards continuity, it was change. In the same way that in 2020, the narrative or story around that election was chaos versus calm or stability. This will have a narrative, too.

Swisher: So what is that narrative? What is that narrative from your perspective?

Emanuel: Well, I can say this to you — since in conversation I said it — I looked at the 2022 election, I said: Four men changed that election. One was Joe Biden and what he got done in the first two years of presidency. One was Trump announcing he was going to run for president. Third, Sam Alito and his decision on abortion and the Dobbs decision. And fourth, the beating of Paul Pelosi. Those four, because you looked at independent voters about two weeks out, which usually go to the opposition party, swung.

I think the president’s very passionate about his defense of democracy. But I would nuance it to the violence associated around democracy, or undermining it. That’s what happened after the 2020 election. You saw what happened when the individual broke into Nancy’s and Paul Pelosi’s home and they created violence there. And I think people are uneased by that. So I think the story is about—

Swisher: Keeping things calm.

Emanuel: Well, keeping things calm and just back to a sense of a norm that people are seeking. Yeah.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Megan Burney, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple PodcastsSpotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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