"Ultimately, Barack would rather be the good cop than the bad cop," said the Obama insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He knows what his strengths and weaknesses are. He wants Rahm in there to play that role."
One strategist calls Emanuel an "inspired choice" for Obama.
"He needs someone in the White House who can say 'no' to people and Rahm can do that," said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist and former chief of staff to then House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt.
Another former Clinton aide agreed. Barack Obama's win was only hours old on Wednesday when he began construction of his administration, by day's end putting in place a transition team of friends and Washington veterans and courting Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel to serve as chief of staff.
Emanuel wrestled with the choice, meaning a return to the White House for the alumnus of the Clinton administration but also a departure from Congress where he has risen quickly to the top ranks.
As the Obama team transitioned hastily out of campaign mode, it became clear immediately what an intense glare will follow every move between now and January's inauguration.
While Obama's campaign was a virtually leak-proof enterprise, Wednesday's developments came in a steady trickle — some before they were, according to the principals, strictly true.
"No," Emanuel said in a terse afternoon e-mail when asked if he had accepted the White House job. Discussions were continuing, according to Democratic officials, and strategists speculated that Emanuel wouldn't be letting the rumor linger if he weren't seriously considering the offer.
It would be embarrassing for the president-elect to be so publicly turned down on his first major appointment, they said.
For the day following a decisive election, Obama kept a remarkably low profile. Other presidents-elect have used the hours after their victories to herald the dawn of a new day and to do a victory lap for the television cameras. Obama – known for nothing if not a consistent drive to capture significant moments in words – put his head down and went to work.
The senator may be hoping for some measure of privacy as he contemplates his Cabinet, setting this week's talks in Chicago rather than hastening back to Washington. The current plan is not to return to the Capitol immediately, but rather to conduct interviews and talk with trusted aides without traveling too far from his wife and daughters.
One item on the agenda is planning for the inauguration 75 days away, preparations for which began with the announcement of the theme, "A New Birth of Freedom," a line from Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
More pressing at the moment is Obama's need to get his White House chief of staff in place and then move to economic and national security teams before filling other Cabinet-level positions.
The people who will lead the transition team are political veterans with strong ties to Chicago. Valerie Jarrett, a prominent local businesswoman who came out of Mayor Richard Daley's administration, is part of the three-member team. She'll be joined by John Podesta, a Chicago native who served as President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, and Pete Rouse, a longtime chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle who also has run offices on Capitol Hill for both Obama and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin.
Another key member of that team could be Emanuel, who has had several conversations with Obama, his fellow Illinois Democrat, about the transition process.
The two men have spoken specifically about the White House job for more than a week, according to one Obama insider. Obama is impressed with Emanuel's strategic thinking and his ability to drive results from staff, the source said.
In terms of management and interpersonal style, Emanuel is strikingly different from Obama. He is dramatic and partisan, with an affinity for the kind of hardball politics from which Obama shies away. That may be part of the attraction, some say.
"A chief of staff has to have steel in his spine and Rahm has that in ample measure," said William Galston, a former Clinton domestic policy aide who worked with Emanuel in the Clinton White House.