White House officials announced this week that Chief of Staff William M. Daley is shifting some of his managerial duties to another senior administration aide, triggering a cascade of speculation about whether Daley had been demoted or was on the way to being fired.
Insiders say it wasn’t much of a change at all.
In truth, people within the Obama orbit said, Daley never fully meshed with the tight-knit culture of the White House in the first place, allowing the other longtime senior advisers to drive administration operations for much of his tenure.
“Daley never got settled,” one close Obama adviser said, noting that Daley has said he will leave after the 2012 elections, win or lose, making him something of a lame duck.
A former administration official described Daley as “more chairman of the board than CEO,” saying the former Commerce Secretary performed much better as a liaison to Cabinet members and outside visitors than as a day-to-day manager.
Aides described the move as a bureaucratic reshuffling that officially shifts responsibility for the more basic tasks of executing policy to senior adviser Pete Rouse, a beloved “fixer” within the building. One senior official said it was Daley who asked Rouse to “take on an expanded operational and coordination role with the White House staff,” essentially surrendering the “chief of staff” part of the job.
Rouse has already been doing that work in practice, aides said. “Bill’s still going to be the sort of global presence there, and I don’t really think a whole lot has changed,” another senior Obama adviser said. “It’s just kind of codifying Pete’s role — which everybody understood anyway — which is to make the trains run on time.”
Sources spoke on the condition of anonymity so they could speak freely about internal matters.
But set against the backdrop of widespread grumblings about Daley’s performance — and anxiety among Democrats about the efficiency of the Obama team — the shift was clearly interpreted as a mini-shakeup.
Daley was brought in with the promise that he would provide a breath of fresh air and an outsider’s perspective, reinvigorating a group that was depleted as some Obama advisers left for Chicago and as the reelection loomed. Yet it did not take long for tensions to surface. Daley has expressed to friends that he is not enjoying certain aspects of the chief of staff job and that he found the upper ranks of the Obama White House somewhat impenetrable. He also did not want to embrace the around-the-clock ethos of the White House, preferring to approach the role as an elder statesman.
Democrats have expressed concern about Daley’s performance and profile. He has not, in his 10 months on the job, turned the president’s approval around or significantly improved relations with Wall Street or Capitol Hill. And it may be challenging for Obama to square his populist approach heading into the 2012 campaign with Daley’s background in banking.
Internally, Daley won few fans with his formal approach, including keeping his West Wing door closed and streamlining meetings, unlike his predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, who roamed the hallways keeping track of administration minutiae.
Most aggravating of all to some loyalists was Daley’s statement, in an interview to Politico’s Roger Simon, that Democrats and Republicans were equally to blame for thwarting Obama’s agenda. “Both Democrats and Republicans have really made it very difficult for the president to be anything like a chief executive,” Daley said. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), who was reportedly outraged by those remarks, declined on Tuesday to comment on the internal White House maneuvering. “It’s none of my business, frankly, what the White House does with their inner staff. If I’m asked a question by the president or any of them, I answer responsively. But it’s in — would be absolutely wrong for me to get involved in that, and I’m not going to,” Reid said.
In October, Salon columnist Joan Walsh called on Obama to fire Daley for what she described as his arrogance. Daley has announced that he intends to leave, but not until after the 2012 election.