By Karen Tumulty and Anne E. Kornblut
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; 10:58 PM
"He is an excellent chief of staff. I think right now, as long as he is in the White House, he is critically focused on making sure that we're creating jobs for families around the country and rebuilding our economy," Obama said on ABC's Good Morning America in an interview with George Stephanopoulos.
"And you know, the one thing I've always been impressed with about Rahm is that when he has a job to do, he focuses on the job in front of him. And so my expectation is, he'd make a decision after these midterm elections. He knows that we've got a lot of work to do. But I think he'd be a terrific mayor."
Emanuel's departure is likely to mark the beginning of a wider White House shake-up, officials said Wednesday, one aimed at helping the administration regain its footing in the aftermath of anticipated Democratic losses in the midterm elections and positioning President Obama for a tough 2012 reelection fight.
Such a reorganization is not unusual at this point in a presidency and particularly in a White House such as Obama's, which has been running full out for two years - grappling with two wars, a financial crisis and an ambitious policy agenda. Many of its key players have begun to let it be known that they are burned out and looking for an exit or a new role.
The stresses have also exposed weaknesses in a White House operation that many in Washington have come to regard as too insular.
Especially for those who also were involved in Obama's two-year campaign, "this is sort of the end of year four, not necessarily the end of year two," press secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters traveling Wednesday with Obama. "So I think there's no doubt that there will be people that return to their lives and their families."
"But we've got a while before that," he added. "We've got about two months before this election before we get to a lot of those decisions."
Those will indeed be busy months, not only because of the election but because of the press of business at the end of the congressional session.
Obama, however, may not have the luxury of waiting before beginning to decide how he wants to reshape the White House operation for the second half of his term.
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley's announcement Tuesday that he will retire "came out of the blue," said one official, who agreed to speak about internal deliberations only on the condition of anonymity.
Emanuel, given the chance to make a bid for the job that he has long said is a dream, now must decide quickly whether to jump into the race, for which the filing deadline is Nov. 22. And that means Obama and his team could have to begin confronting some very specific choices of their own.
The chief of staff is not the only top official whose days at the White House appear to be numbered. Also expected to leave at some point after the elections is chief political strategist David Axelrod.
He has made no secret of his desire to return to his family in Chicago. But another imperative for Axelrod may be the need to get the Obama reelection operation up and running, particularly if the president's political standing is damaged after the midterms.
There are also likely to be changes in the communications operation. Officials expect that Gibbs, whose relations with the White House press corps have been contentious, will want to give up the briefing-room podium in favor of a role that would put him behind the scenes as a presidential counselor.
Meanwhile, the economic team, which has been beset by infighting as it grapples with the nation's biggest concern, is hardly a picture of stability.
Christina Romer, who was chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, left this month to return to academia, and Obama has yet to pick a successor. Peter Orszag left his post as budget director this summer, and his replacement, Jack Lew, is awaiting Senate confirmation.
Sources both inside and outside the White House said any new chief of staff may want to reshape the economic brain trust, starting with the controversial top adviser, Lawrence H. Summers.
Ironically, the member of the economic operation considered most likely to remain is Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who has endured scathing criticism and calls for his resignation from both the right and the left.
Obama has not given even his closest aides many clues to what he may be planning, but his record suggests that any realignment of the White House operation is likely to begin with the decision on a replacement for Emanuel.
Naming the then-Illinois congressman to the post was Obama's first major act after the 2008 election, and the president-elect said at the time that "the chief of staff is central to the ability of a president and administration to accomplish an agenda."
Emanuel came to the job with the perspective and experience of having been in both the Clinton White House and the House Democratic leadership, as well as political credentials that included having engineered the Democratic takeover of the House in 2006.
While there is no obvious successor who can boast such a resume, several officials in the administration are considered strong potential contenders.
Among them are deputy national security adviser Tom Donilon; Ron Klain, chief of staff to Vice President Biden; and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who is a close friend of Obama's from his Chicago days. Also being mentioned by White House insiders is legislative affairs director Phil Schiliro, who is said to havewon the president's confidence through their many battles for the Obama agenda on Capitol Hill.
But if the election turns out to be a disaster for Democrats, Obama may feel compelled to install new faces and fresh thinking throughout the White House operation.
After Democrats lost both houses of Congress in 1994, President Bill Clinton went so far as to summon a trio of self-help gurus - Anthony Robbins, Marianne Williamson and Steven R. Covey - to Camp David.
But more significant - and much to the dismay of White House insiders - Clinton secretly reconnected with his old political adviser Dick Morris and embarked on a strategy that became known as triangulation, one in which he often cut his own party loose and began striking more deals with Republicans.
Whether the election will see Obama embark on a similarly dramatic course change remains to be seen. But whatever direction he takes the ship, it now appears that there will probably be some changes in the crew.
Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.