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Clash of the Titans? White House Beats Back Reports of Tension With Emanuel

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In this Sept. 25, 2009, file photo, President Obama speaks with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel at the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo)

It's Rahmbo vs. the Obamanator. At least that's the chatter that's getting louder by the minute in Washington. 

A series of columns and in-depth press reports over the past few weeks has hinted at such a slugfest, and the talk is bound to dog the White House for quite a while, especially if there's any truth to it.

The storyline goes something like this: White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel knows best ... the rest of the administration isn't listening ... and he is at his wit's end trying to convince President Obama and his Chicago buddies to dial back their ambitions for the sake of the president's agenda and political harmony. 

On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was compelled for the first time to respond to the chatter. He said the president "absolutely" has confidence in his chief of staff, and he dismissed speculation of a rift between the two as part of the usual lineup of Washington "parlor games" -- which he suggested were being played out of sheer boredom in the vacuum of the football off-season. 

"Anybody that works in or around this building knows that there's nobody working harder on passing the president's agenda than the chief of staff," Gibbs said. 

Asked whether Emanuel was "burnishing his reputation" via the press at everybody else's expense, Gibbs responded, "I don't believe he is, no." 

Whether or not Gibbs could have been more forceful in his response, he was reluctantly addressing the possibility that both Obama and Emanuel are crossing paths with the one person in the world they don't want to cross paths with. The two Chicagoans -- one a former U.S. senator and the other a former U.S. representative -- have larger-than-life personalities and egos, and each could make life very difficult for the other.

Gibbs addressed the chatter after The Washington Post published a lengthy piece Tuesday examining how the explosive, hard-nosed, profanity-dealing chief of staff could be the "voice of reason" in the White House, quoting anonymous sources who supported the hypothesis that Emanuel knows best. 

"I don't think the White House has listened to him enough," an unnamed House Democrat told the Post, arguing that the White House seems "tone-deaf" to the kind of electoral concerns Emanuel is known to handle well. (Case in point, Obama suggested last week that Democrats should suck up their re-election concerns and vote for health care reform regardless of the upcoming midterm elections.) 

"Rahm knows the geography better," another source said. 

The Post article followed a column by Dana Milbank in the same newspaper arguing that Emanuel's political acumen is the only thing "keeping Obama from becoming Jimmy Carter." And that came on top of a New Yorker piece that detailed several splits between Emanuel and Attorney General Eric Holder, whom Obama has supported. 

Here's where Emanuel and the rest of the Obama team are rumored to have disagreed: 

-- Emanuel was uncomfortable with the plan to close the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year -- a goal that was not met. 

-- Emanuel opposed the decision to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, alleged ringleader of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, in civilian court, and was particularly concerned the decision would alienate Republicans needed in the quest to close Guantanamo. 

-- Emanuel opposed the decision to widen an internal probe into CIA interrogations, expressing concern about "re-litigating the past." 

-- Emanuel originally argued for a smaller-scale health care reform bill, though Obama and congressional Democrats pursued a sweeping legislative overhaul. 

-- Emanuel wanted to focus more on jobs creation toward the end of last year, but was overruled by Obama, who wanted to pursue health care reform. 

Of the top tier of the Obama inner circle, Emanuel is the only one who's not a family friend or a presidential campaign confidant -- though he represented Illinois in the House of Representatives while Obama was in the Illinois state Senate, and then the U.S. Senate. 

One of those confidants, Gibbs, said Tuesday that Emanuel is still the leader of the pack and made clear that all decision-making is up to the president, regardless of the wide-ranging advice he receives. 

"The president makes decisions and we move forward. When we move forward, nobody moves forward with more determination than the chief of staff," Gibbs said. 

He described Emanuel as a tireless advocate. 

"All of us could tell you stories about him working constantly, calling, e-mailing us to make sure that we're moving forward on things out of planning meetings to get the president's agenda through the House and the Senate," he said. "Whether or not what all of what you read is true ... knowing most of what goes on in here, I don't subscribe to all of it or a lot of it."