In Daley, Obama gets change, not continuity

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 12:00 AM

By all outward appearances, the appointment of William Daley on Thursday as White House chief of staff is a total inside job. In reality, it's anything but, signaling another significant step in the post-election evolution of President Obama.

The chain of events reads like this: Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley announces he will not run for reelection. Rahm Emanuel resigns as White House chief of staff to run for Daley's job. Obama picks Daley's younger brother, Bill, to succeed Emanuel. Neat and tidy. One Chicagoan for another. All in the family.

In fact, in tapping Daley, Obama has begun to reach outside his comfort zone. Although he and Daley have known each other for years, they have not had a close relationship. Daley may have been an occasional resource for advice, but he's hardly the kind of confidant that Obama's other Chicago advisers - Emanuel, David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett - have been. Daley has had a far longer relationship with Vice President Biden than with the president.

In a White House where most of the top jobs have been held by people who went through the fires of the election with Obama, Daley's arrival can provide a circuit breaker to normal operations. All White Houses are insular, and Obama's has been no exception. Although the president and Daley share a Chicago connection, Daley is clearly an outsider to Obama's world and therefore someone who can see the presidency and the operation with fresh eyes.

Emanuel fit the job requirements Obama was looking for two years ago when he had big Democratic majorities in Congress, an ambitious agenda and the need for a tough, inside player to enact that agenda. Emanuel wasn't afraid to break crockery.

Now Obama requires other attributes from his chief of staff as he prepares to deal with a Republican majority in the House, an enhanced GOP minority in the Senate and a potentially difficult reelection campaign. In the view of people who know him, Daley provides much of what the president needs.

"He's the right person at the right time for President Obama," said Ken Duberstein, who was chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan and who met with Obama last month to talk about the presidency and White House operations.

"This is the time for trying to find common ground, trying to reach out and build bridges to the business community, to Republicans on Capitol Hill and to Middle America. And, frankly, to the news media," Duberstein said. "Bill has the stature, the personality and the connections to help Obama through the thicket of hardball Washington politics."

Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist who worked closely with Daley on former vice president Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, said the new chief of staff possesses management and people skills to go with his genetic understanding of politics. The president "is bringing in somebody who has all these skills and all these relationships, and he's going to immediately benefit from them," he said.

Not everyone cheered the Daley appointment. His centrist politics and his Wall Street resume - he comes to the White House from J.P. Morgan Chase - alarm some liberals, who consider his appointment a sign of retrenchment by the president in the wake of the Democrats' midterm losses.

"With Wall Street reporting record profits while middle-class Americans continue to struggle in a deep recession, the announcement that William Daley, who has close ties to the Big Banks and Big Business, will now lead the White House staff is troubling and sends the wrong message to the American people," Justin Ruben, executive director of, said in a statement.

Daley's policy views are well known. Before he became commerce secretary, President Bill Clinton tapped him to help push through Congress the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was highly unpopular among many Democrats at the time and more so now. He has been open about his assessment of the political damage inflicted on the administration by the long battle over health-care reform.

What people may be overlooking is that Emanuel held many of the same centrist views. Daley can be counted on to offer candid advice - in ways that those who have been closest to Obama may not have been able to do - but not to try to substitute his views for the president's. If the administration moves to the middle, it will be because of the president, not his chief of staff. If Obama wants to make deals with Republicans, Daley may be empowered to cut them but not to operate unilaterally.

Others who know Daley say he can be a positive influence on a White House that needs tighter structure and improved relationships. He has a reputation for shooting straight, playing hard, talking bluntly and, above all, remaining calm in a crisis. It was Daley's job on election night in 2000 to stop Gore from going public with his concession and then to stand in front of the microphones and tell the world that the election wasn't decided.

"He was just a rock," said a former Gore campaign adviser.

Daley's business credentials bring to the White House something that has been lacking, but his management skills and his knowledge of Washington may be more important in helping Obama navigate the coming months. This is a White House that has spent two years dealing with the crisis of the moment. What it needs, outside allies say, is more strategic thinking and planning.

Daley also is someone who can represent the administration in public and who can lead negotiations with Republicans in Congress in what is likely to be a series of tough battles over spending. As a former Cabinet officer, Daley knows the ways of Capitol Hill. And he can recognize that Obama's Cabinet could be put to better use in helping to shape public opinion about the president's priorities.

As he takes over, Daley will have a strong ally in Pete Rouse, the interim chief of staff who had a hand in the White House reorganization. Rouse's popularity inside the White House was evident from the standing ovation he received when the president announced Thursday that Rouse will stay on as counselor.

Daley is also likely to benefit from the management skills of David Plouffe, Obama's 2008 campaign manager who has been on a two-year sabbatical but will return to duty just as Axelrod leaves to start preparing the 2012 reelection campaign.

The president has shown a disinclination in the past to stray beyond his closest circle of advisers, and many of the changes underway include familiar faces, even if in new jobs. In that context, the selection of Daley may seem more like continuity than change. Reading it that way would be a mistake.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company