Obama signals continuity, for now, with staff changes

Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 9:13 PM

If President Obama is contemplating a genuine shakeup of his White House or a significant change of direction for his administration after the November elections, his first round of personnel moves gives little hint of that. Maybe just the opposite.

It may be too early to expect the president to tip his hand. For the next month, he will be fighting to help save the House and the Senate, making the Democrats' case against the Republicans. He is not in a mood or of a mind to admit mistakes. Until everyone sees the results of the midterm campaign and assesses the damage and the shape of the new Congress, no definitive signals are likely.

But a central question being asked is: How might Obama respond to significant losses in the Democrats' House and Senate majorities? What lessons would he take away from his first two years in the White House and from the experiences of recent presidents whose parties suffered losses in midterm elections?

After the 1994 elections, President Bill Clinton declared the era of big government over. He moved to the center in an attempt to recapture the New Democrat aura of his 1992 campaign. He became the triangulating chief executive, playing himself off against both the Republican majority in Congress and the left wing of his own party. He stared down the GOP leadership over the budget, later signed a welfare overhaul bill he had previously vetoed and ended up winning reelection easily.

Even before the 1982 midterms, in which Republicans suffered sizable losses in the House, then-President Ronald Reagan vowed to stay the course. He kept his political compass fixed behind the tax-cutting policies he put in place during the major recession of those years (after accepting a tax increase, however). His party suffered in the short term, but when the economy rebounded, Reagan won reelection in a landslide, with the biggest electoral margin in history.

After the 2006 election, then-President George W. Bush acknowledged that his party had taken a "whupping." He dismissed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the most controversial member of his Cabinet. Then he went against the advice of military leaders and doubled down on Iraq by ordering in more troops. The troop surge eventually produced the desired results in Iraq, but too late for Bush and his party. Republicans took another beating in 2008, and Bush now looks to history to improve his standing.

By instinct, Obama has always spoken of his desire to reach across the aisle, to lower temperatures and to seek bipartisan cooperation. That was one of the most powerful themes of his presidential campaign, though the atmosphere in Washington during his first two years has been just the opposite.

Almost no matter what happens in November, Obama is likely to issue a renewed call for a change of tone - as will Republican leaders - though many of the new Republicans elected next month will have gotten there by vowing to oppose Obama at every turn.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the White House will change direction. If anything, the battles of Obama's first two years have toughened the president's hide as divisions over his policies and a united Republican opposition have left no room for bipartisanship. On the stump this fall, Obama has become fiercely partisan, excoriating the Republicans as he tries to rouse the base. His message lately has been more one of fear than of hope.

Nor have there been many signs so far in his presidency that he has doubts about the direction he has set. At virtually every turn, faced with challenges from the Republicans and occasional advice from his team to scale back his ambitions, he has doubled down on his big agenda. Without that, he probably would not have gotten health care through the Congress, though the short-term cost has been significant.

Some congressional Democrats have long feared that Obama cares far more about his own reelection in 2012 than theirs next month. Could that lead the president to follow Clinton's path as a triangulating president? Those who know him best say, flatly, no, that he will not emulate the strategy and tactics Clinton employed after the Democrats' losses in 1994.

In the past few months, Obama has replaced three of his most senior advisers: White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Council of Economic Advisers chairwoman Christina Romer and budget director Peter Orszag. None of the replacements has signaled a real shake-up.

Pete Rouse, the new chief of staff, is temperamentally far removed from Emanuel but is perhaps even closer to Obama than his predecessor was. His management style may differ from the president's, but Rouse has been a partner in building the strategy that took Obama from the Senate to the White House and in his first two years as president. It isn't clear whether Rouse will stay in his new job for a few months or a couple of years, however.

The choice of Austan Goolsbee to replace Romer was another sign of Obama keeping his inner circle close. Goolsbee was his most important economic adviser throughout the presidential campaign. His elevation to CEA chairman signals that Obama remains most comfortable with those he knows best.

Jack Lew, the new budget director, is a newcomer to Obama's inner circle. His loyalties have been with the Clintons, having served Bill Clinton as budget director and Hillary Rodham Clinton at the State Department. But there is nothing to suggest any change in course from his appointment.

White House senior adviser David Axelrod will return to Chicago next spring - to prepare for the president's reelection campaign. Returning to Obama's side at some point in the not-so-distant future, whether as Axelrod's replacement or in some other role, will be David Plouffe, the 2008 campaign manager. Though the two men operate differently, the departure of one and the arrival of the other will not represent a sharp change.

On Saturday, Politico reported that soundings had been made among Democratic donors about the possibility of White House press secretary Robert Gibbs moving to become chairman of the Democratic National Committee for the reelection campaign.

While Gibbs is expected to relinquish the podium in the briefing room at some point, the assumption was that he would stay in the White House as a senior adviser. A move to the DNC would be a more significant change in the Obama team's lineup.

But White House officials moved quickly to douse the speculation about such a move. Several knowledgeable Democrats said that while there had been some very informal conversations about such a move, nothing serious is in the works at this point.

Future staff changes may bring in people with new or different advice. Obama must replace top economic adviser Lawrence Summers. There has been persistent talk that national security adviser Jim Jones could leave before long.

Additions to the staff may yet broaden Obama's inner circle or speak for constituencies that feel alienated from the White House. But only the president can decide what direction to take in the next two years. The changes so far suggest that Obama remains confident in the course he set early in his presidency. Will that still be the case after November?

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