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What Bill Daley taught the White House

at 04:50 PM ET, 01/09/2012

White House chief of staff Bill Daley’s abrupt decision to resign his office caught official Washington by surprise as it came just a year after he was named to the job.

Obama praised Daley in announcing his departure, casting him as someone willing to make tough decision on the fly. “Chicago is only a phone call away,” Obama said, adding that he would continue to seek Daley’s counsel in the coming months. (And Daley is expected to serve as a co-chairman of Obama’s re-election campaign.)

Daley’s departure raises a bigger question, however. Brought in to rebuild the White House’s relationship with the business community and Congress, Daley leaves the job as Obama seems to have found his stride by explicitly running against Congress and, to a lesser extent, the business community.

“What he learned was that business refused to make nice regardless of what he did,” said one former White House aide of Daley. “Wall Street was just never going to be there.”

Another former aide said only that Daley was “not the right fit for the job”, adding: “ [Incoming White House chief of staff Jack] Lew is well-liked and a perfect fit for no-drama Obama team in a key year.” The aide would not expand on that critique.

The choice of Daley, which was formally announced on Jan. 6, 2011, to replace the combative and controversial Rahm Emanuel as the top staffer in the White House went over like a lead balloon with many in the Democratic base who believed his business background and moderate politics were the wrong move for the president.

Wrote Jon Chait: “I think liberal criticism of some potential Obama nominees is overblown — the fact that Gene Sperling got paid a lot of Wall Street money to run a charitable program doesn’t bother me. But putting a figure like Daley in a position of strategic importance seems like a major blunder.”

The defining moment of Daley’s first nine months as chief of staff was the debt ceiling fight, which began in earnest in the spring and continued into early August.

That fight was highlighted by the failure of the Republican-led House and the White House to find any real common ground, typified by the collapse of the negotiations between Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) to produce a so-called “grand bargain”.

The aftermath of the debt ceiling debate — at least in terms of the electorate — was a “pox on both your houses” mentality that drive approval ratings for Obama and Congress lower and lower.

Asked about his efforts to build bridges between the White House, Congress and the business community, Daley joked this fall: “Oh, it’s going great. Can’t you tell? I mean, things are just really great. The debt ceiling was no problem, and the business community loves us. They love the rhetoric. And, just, no problems.”

As summer turned to fall, Obama’s numbers continued to languish amid a drumbeat of bad economic news. By the end of September, Gallup polling showed Obama’s job approval at 41 percent with disapproval running at 51 percent.

Then Obama and his team made a drastic course correction that ran exactly counter to why Daley was brought in as chief of staff: the President started to fight Congress — purposefully and deliberately.

It began in late October with a series of executive orders signed by the President aimed at making clear he would do everything in his power to act even as if Congress would not. Then came Obama’s speech in Kansas in early December that amounted to a populist broadside against the Republican-led Congress.

And then there was the showdown over an extension of the payroll tax cut at the end of December where Obama stood his ground on the need for a temporary, two-month extension and dared Congressional Republicans to let the tax cut expire. Republicans blinked, Obama won.

As Obama began to treat Congress as the enemy rather than as a wayward friend with whom detente was possible, his numbers moved upwards. In the latest Gallup three-day tracking poll, Obama’s approval rating (46 percent) was a virtual match for his disapproval rating (47 percent).

It’s no surprise then that Obama made waves last week by recess appointing Richard Cordray to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; “For almost half a year, Republicans in the Senate have blocked Richard’s nomination,” said Obama in announcing the appointment. “This is not because Richard is not qualified.”

Despite the fact that Obama has found success by abandoning the strategic impetus of outreach to Congress and the business community of which Daley’s hiring was supposedly symbolic, several former White House aides and Democratic strategists insisted the fault lay not with the outgoing chief of staff.

“The failure is purely the fault of the Republican Congress,” said Democratic strategist Steve Murphy. “It has nothing to do with Daley and everything to do with the them.”

Added one former senior White House aide of Daley: “He left things better than he found them.”

What Daley’s year-long tenure ultimately seemed to prove within the White House is that attempts to court independent voters by reaching out to Republicans in Congress (and business leaders off Capitol Hill) were doomed to failure. Republicans simply view the right way forward for the country — on the economy and everything else — through a fundamentally different lens than does the White House and their Democratic counterparts.

Deciding who has more of the right in that fight is, of course, what the 2012 election will tell us.

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