William Daley, Jack Lew and Obama’s leadership blunder with the White House chief of staff

January 10, 2012

President Obama announces Chief of Staff Bill Daley is stepping down after only one year in office, to be replaced by budget director Jack Lew. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)

They shouldn’t have been. It seems painfully obvious that Daley was wrong in the role. He may have been the man for the moment—a business-friendly former commerce secretary and longtime banker who could help to improve the administration’s relationship with Wall Street and Republicans—but he doesn’t seem to have been the man for the job. His political instincts were reportedly off, and he couldn’t really get a read on Obama’s inner circle. He had a hierarchical management style that rubbed staffers the wrong way. And he did not get along well with Democrats on the Hill, notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

His departure calls into question Obama’s judgment when picking one of the key posts for his administration. While addressing the relationship with the business community and Republicans may have been an important task in late 2010, it wasn’t necessarily the right one for the president’s chief of staff. That post is, in effect, the White House’s chief operating officer—the person responsible for being the president’s most senior adviser and the person in charge of all West Wing administrative and operational matters.

In other words, it’s a role for someone who must first be a good match to the dynamics of the internal staff he manages and only then be a good ambassador to the opposing party in Congress and other outsiders. Both jobs are important, but leaders who don’t first ensure an operator like the chief of staff is a good cultural fit with the people he manages is making one of the biggest errors in leadership. As one story put it, “Daley was chosen for a handful of check-the-box reasons rather than overall considerations of how he would fit into the idiosyncratic Obama team.”

That’s not to say that Daley didn’t accomplish anything in the role. He seems to be leaving the administration’s relationship with the business community better than he found it—even if there’s only so much ground that group would give up. He apparently played a key role in helping to broker important trade deals. And he helped to bring some calm to the West Wing.

But one has to wonder what Obama might have accomplished if he’d had someone else in this critical role over the past year. Someone who is said to be universally liked. Someone who has spent time on Wall Street and might help to repair the president’s relationship. Someone who has worked for a well-regarded Democratic congressional leader with a record of knowing how to successfully bridge the divide in Congress. Someone like Jack Lew, Daley’s successor.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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