February 25, 2011

Robert Gibbs told White House staffers Wednesday that he is leaving his post as President Obama’s press secretary, ending a two-year tenure that made him the face of the White House as he sparred with reporters and defended administration policies.

Gibbs plans to leave in early February and to become an outside political adviser for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, administration officials said. A successor is expected to be announced in the next couple of weeks.

Gibbs, 39, an affable Democrat from Alabama, has worked with Obama since 2004, becoming a confidant of the senator from Illinois and serving as communications director for his 2008 presidential campaign. According to three Democrats with White House knowledge, Gibbs in recent weeks had been exploring the possibility of leaving the White House, perhaps to set up his own consulting shop and play a leading role in the 2012 campaign.

The move came a day after Obama returned from a Christmas vacation in Hawaii, arriving at the White House to weigh a major reshuffling of his staff that could see as many as eight people taking on new roles in the weeks ahead, Democrats familiar with the changes said Tuesday. The Democratic sources, like others cited in this article, asked not to be named in order to speak freely about private deliberations.

Obama has been mulling for months the possibility of naming former commerce secretary William Daley to be his chief of staff, two Democrats said. He has also considered outsiders, they said.

But those are only part of a potentially much larger reorganization that encompasses almost the entire West Wing hierarchy, including those who had the most influence over the administration’s direction in the first half of Obama’s term.

The changes come as a new Congress, shaped by an emboldened Republican House majority, is preparing to push conservative fiscal initiatives and undo some of what Obama has achieved.

The reorganization seeks to address shortcomings in a White House operation that Obama thought was not as attuned to politics or the interests of the business community as it should have been during his first two years in office.

The staff reshuffling will not necessarily bring new faces to an administration that has been criticized for being insular. Most of the positions in play are likely to go to officials already in the West Wing or to campaign loyalists.

Said to be in the running to replace Gibbs as press secretary are one of his deputies, Bill Burton, and Vice President Biden’s communications director, Jay Carney.

White House advisers have played down the turnover as the kind of routine change-up that all administrations experience at the halfway point. Most of the changes would result from departures, not from a wholesale shake-up that some outsiders have called for in the wake of political losses and legislative difficulties.

The chief-of-staff post

Yet for Obama, shifting members of his inner circle into new roles would be a significant change after two years of unusual staff stability.

White House officials said for months that they assumed Pete Rouse, picked for the chief-of-staff role on an interim basis, would stay permanently. An affable longtime Senate staffer who has restored a sense of calm after Rahm Emanuel’s intense tenure, Rouse was clearly the preferred pick of his underlings. “Everyone over there really wanted Pete to stay, because it made their lives easier,” said one Democrat close to the Obama inner circle.

But the notion that Rouse would automatically get the job was a case of “collective wishful thinking,” the Democrat said, adding that “the president had questions about his ability to really drive the place.”

Another Democrat close to the White House said that Rouse has never made an aggressive push for the post, long insisting he prefers his more anonymous life.

If Daley is chosen as the new chief of staff, he could accomplish several goals at once: He would bring an outside perspective to the White House bubble and would serve as a power broker, managing the West Wing’s strong personalities. Daley — who serves on the executive committee of J.P. Morgan Chase — is also seen as someone who could help reach out to business leaders and Wall Street, a constituency the White House has struggled to win over.

People inside and outside the White House emphasized that none of these decisions has been made by Obama, who returned to Washington on Tuesday and who could ultimately conclude that Rouse is right for the job after overseeing a successful lame- duck session.

Although familiar with the Daley family — William is the brother of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley — Obama did not have a personal relationship with William Daley and wanted to get to know him. The search process has been tightly held, without as much as a mention in senior staff meetings, an administration official said.

‘A full plate’ for Obama

Personnel decisions will occupy only a portion of Obama’s time in the next few weeks. He will slowly start to engage the new Congress, several aides said, and define goals for the coming year through the drafting of the State of the Union address. “The president will have a full plate,” senior adviser David Axelrod said.

Still, advisers said it is difficult to advance too many goals without knowing who will carry them out.

Officials have known for months that Axelrod would leave for Chicago this month, with former campaign manager David Plouffe arriving to take a similar role. Officials have also been scrambling to fill a hole at the helm of the National Economic Council.

But there are many more: Both deputy chiefs of staff, Jim Messina and Mona Sutphen, are expected to leave, with Messina moving to Chicago to run the 2012 presidential campaign.

There is an important vacancy at the Office of Public Engagement: Tina Tchen, the director, is leaving to become Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. And there is speculation about the political shop, although rumors that political director Patrick Gaspard will leave have circulated for months and not come to fruition. Additionally, the senior-adviser opening created by Rouse when he assumed the chief-of-staff role has not been filled.

Biden said Tuesday that his longtime chief of staff, Ron Klain, will soon depart, another major shift. “For 25 years, Ron Klain has been my friend and adviser,” Biden said.

In filling the holes, the White House could create even more vacancies if, as expected, they are filled with current employees. In addition to Carney and Burton, who are possible replacements for Gibbs, Carol Browner is on the short list to become a deputy chief of staff, as is Phil Schiliro, officials have said. As insular as the Daley move might appear, one Democrat said, “all the other moves they will make will be much more insular than this.”

In fact, Daley is, in the context of Obama’s inner circle, a true outsider: Although from Chicago, he is not someone the president has known for years or worked alongside during a campaign, unlike other key figures he trusts.

Lingering uncertainties

For now, the only certainty is that Plouffe will arrive as early as next week. His exact role was still being sorted out — in part because he and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett clashed occasionally during the 2008 campaign, several officials and outside Democrats said, with one describing it as “not a good relationship.”

There were tensions between the senior staff in its last incarnation — Emanuel, Jarrett and Axelrod all had their differences — and officials are worried about starting the new team off on the wrong foot.

Jarrett and Plouffe have reconciled, but advisers are sensitive to giving them overlapping roles — or, as they restructure areas of responsibility, leaving the impression that portfolios Jarrett oversees are being handed off to Plouffe.

Jarrett is in charge of managing the business community, which has had strained dealings with the White House, and public outreach. Her detractors say she should focus on giving advice to the president rather than overseeing external relations. Her advocates say she is the only thing standing between Obama and a tight network of men entrenched in the political culture — and the only one looking out for Obama’s interests, rather than her own.

Staff writer William Branigin contributed to this report.

kornbluta@washpost.com

wilsons@washpost.com

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