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Obama's staff changes give him a second chance

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Members of the White House staff are extensions of a president's will, and they also shape that will over time. They can either amplify or repress his enthusiasms; feed his better nature or his resentments. They are both instrument and influence.

President Obama's staff changes in the past few months are not cosmetic. His chief of staff's office and his economic team are nearly new; only his defense and foreign policy lineups are substantially intact. Staff shake-ups allow for a fresh start. They are also an implicit concession that the previous system didn't function as intended.

That system was top-heavy with presidential advisers who had a personal history with Obama, direct access and a strong, political bent - Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, while possessing a vivid personality, was not definitively in charge. It was as though Obama employed four Karl Roves. One is valuable - and enough.

The main contrast between the previous order and the tenure of William Daley will be institutional, not ideological. Daley's gravitas and experience will clarify the organizational chart. He should command respect among the Cabinet and staff. At the same time, since he is neither an ideologue nor a self-promoter, the Cabinet and staff won't view him as a competitor. He is well positioned to promote timely decision-making and enforce discipline on a chaotic White House process - the main measures of the success of a White House chief of staff.

Daley has a deserved reputation as a reasonable adult and an effective political operator. His main deputy, David Lane (who, until last week, was a colleague of mine at the ONE Campaign), is skilled at political coalition-building. The new director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jack Lew, is broadly praised for his seriousness. During its first two years, the Obama White House believed it was smarter and more righteous than anyone else in Washington - an attitude that made followership difficult. The new team has a chance to alter this perception with a quieter professionalism.

But precisely because Daley is not an ideologue, his appointment carries some ideological consequences. He is not that pinstriped corporate conservative some progressive critics have depicted. Daley was involved, in one way or another, in nearly every Democratic presidential campaign since Jimmy Carter's. But he clearly doesn't view Republicans as another species. When Daley was appointed by President Bill Clinton as commerce secretary, none other than Donald Rumsfeld spoke favorably at his confirmation hearing. Daley was mildly but publicly critical of Obama's health-care reform strategy. He argued last year: "We've really got to listen carefully to the public. Voters are not re-embracing conservative ideology. But we must acknowledge that the left's agenda has not won the support of a majority of Americans - and, based on that recognition, we must steer a more moderate course."

Obama has put into place a staff structure that would allow for a shift toward the center-left. The hard left thinks this happened years ago - but it is only true when measured against its own uncompromising ideals. Daley's political analysis is more reliable. Obama's political objectives leading up to the 2012 election are the same as most presidents. He needs to do things that please his political base without alienating independents. And he needs to do things that regain the support of independents without dispiriting his political base. This is always a walk on a greased tightrope. But the strategy was effectively previewed during the lame-duck session of Congress. The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" spoke to Obama's base without alienating the middle (a symbol of how mainstream the gay rights movement has become). The pro-growth tax deal with Republicans, aimed at independents, caused liberal growling but little open revolt. It is the model for a political comeback.

That comeback is difficult, but not close to impossible. The president's personal standing has remained high even during large political setbacks. And he can probably count on some Republican help. Each of the past three presidents has benefited from the nasty overreach of his opponents.

Pursuing a successful comeback strategy ultimately depends on the president and his policy decisions, not on the composition of his staff. But Obama's staff changes are gaining the administration a second look - which is deserved.

michaelgerson@washpost.com


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