Why Obama Chose Bill Daley

January 13, 2011

Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama's first chief of staff, was treated like a rock star by journalists. He made good copy with vivid quotes and manic energy. He also oversaw a clearly dysfunctional White House.

Mr. Emanuel's interim successor, Pete Rouse, was the anti-Emanuel: self-effacing and calm. He did the president a great service by convincing Mr. Obama to pick a new chief of staff from outside his personal and ideological circles.

A veteran congressional staffer who joined Mr. Obama when he came to the Senate, Mr. Rouse appears to have gone so far as to tell the president that to strengthen the White House, he must cast off long-time aides who wanted more authority but weren't up to it.

For example, last April the Washington Post reported that White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was "eager" for "a senior advisor role." On Jan. 5, Mr. Gibbs announced he was leaving the administration—though he was quick to say he'd help on the president's re-election and remain a trusted adviser.

But when someone leaves the White House, the idea of continuing, influential input is a polite fiction. Mr. Gibbs was a powerful insider. Now he will become one distant voice among many. There may be something to be said for an expensive suite on K Street, but in terms of influence it can't compete with a West Wing office.

Mr. Gibbs signed on with Mr. Obama at the start of his 2004 U.S. Senate campaign. So Mr. Rouse, who likely told the president he must deny Mr. Gibbs a larger White House policy role and instead ease the acerbic press secretary out, was suggesting a tough but necessary move. If he did, Mr. Rouse is owed thanks by Mr. Obama for candor in pushing him to do what no president likes to do: reshape his White House.

Mr. Rouse also apparently convinced the president that his new chief of staff should have stature and centrist credentials. Hence the selection of William Daley, who was President Bill Clinton's Commerce Secretary.

Big changes are in store. Mr. Daley is unlikely to constantly outsource the drafting of legislation to Congress. He'll also end the West Wing's habit of only talking to Democrats and instead speak often with senior congressional Republicans. During the president's first two years in office, GOP leaders were more objects of contempt than conversation.

Mr. Daley already has an extraordinary number of staff posts to fill and may force even more departures. If the rumor mill is correct, by spring there could be only seven people in the 23 to 25 seats at the morning senior staff meeting who were there a year ago.

Nor is the White House likely to be nearly so insular and arrogant, certain that all wisdom resides within its 18 acres. When faced with a challenge, Mr. Daley's instincts will be to draw in outsiders who possess practical experience.

Mr. Daley will probably streamline the West Wing's unwieldy decision-making structure while expanding the range of opinions the president hears. There are likely to be fewer senior aides, including perhaps an end to the (unwise) practice of the president's top people having their own individual "chiefs of staff."

It's also hard to believe that class warfare will make it into the president's speeches now that draft remarks have to pass through Mr. Daley's hands. The days of portraying successful business people as leeches and robber barons are hopefully at an end.

Some of these changes will be forced by the new circumstances of a GOP House and a much-reduced Democratic margin in the Senate. It's no longer possible for Mr. Obama to pass legislation with only the votes of congressional Democrats.

Perhaps the most intriguing question is how much Mr. Daley's centrist credentials will influence the course of the Obama presidency. Mr. Daley, after all, helped Mr. Clinton pass the North American Free Trade Agreement, told the New York Times that Mr. Obama "miscalculated on health care," and opposed the administration's financial-regulation bill. All this angers—not enthuses—union bosses, liberal activists and left-wing bloggers.

It's doubtful that Mr. Obama really shares Mr. Daley's centrist impulses. Over his political career, Mr. Obama has proved himself to be both very liberal and highly partisan. But he is also up for re-election in 2012. He understands he must regain the support of independents who voted for GOP congressional candidates last November by 59% to 38%.

Mr. Obama's best chance of success 22 months from now rests on reclaiming his image as a reasonable, bipartisan and unifying figure. It won't be easy, given his track record as president. That can't be airbrushed from history. But the selection of Mr. Daley as chief of staff indicates that Mr. Obama is willing to give it a try. It makes sense. After all, what he was doing nearly wrecked his party and has imperiled his presidency.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, January 13, 2011.

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