It’s tempting to see the news that Bill Daley is leaving as White House chief of staff — to be replaced by budget director Jack Lew — as a triumph of the new populist Obama over the old bipartisan and reconciliatory Obama. While there’s a grain of truth in that reading, it’s overstated.
Bill Daley’s departure is not exactly heartbreaking news for Hill Democrats and liberals, because Daley is directly associated with many of the failings liberal Dems saw in the White House before Obama’s turn towards a more aggressive populism. Daley was brought in to repair relations with the business community, at a time (as liberals argued at the time) when literally nothing could have ever gotten corporate leaders and Republicans from from tarring Obama as anti-business. Daley’s olive branch went unrewarded, confirming liberal suspicions about the folly of hoping for improved relations.
Liberals also saw Daley as representative of a kind of hidebound Beltway conventional wisdom that Obama’s election was supposed to be a reaction against. When the pick of Daley as chief of staff was first announced, many liberals took note of a Post Op ed he published in December of 2009 urging Obama to tack to the center. While the subsequent decision to pass health reform arguably didn’t work out politically for the White House, many liberals nonetheless have continued to hope for a chief of staff who would aggressively advocate the liberal case internally, not warn Obama against making it.
Lew, unlike Daley, is not known for building bridges to the business community; and he’s probably more populist than Daley. But Lew is really more of a Clinton-style technocrat than a populist; he, too, has been on the receiving end of anger from Hill Dems over his alleged willingness to deal with House Republicans. So we shouldn’t overstate the larger meaning of this change.
Still, the Obama that emerged after the debt ceiling debacle — free of the illusion of the possibility of compromise with Republicans; unabashed in making a populist economic case; indifferent to arbitrary Beltway consensus about what constitutes the “center” of American politics — is in many ways at odds with what Daley seemed, at least to liberals, to represent. Daley’s departure — he will now return to Chicago to be co-chair of the Obama campaign — neatly dovetails with the more visible changes we’re seeing as the White House shifts into a more aggressive and confrontational posture towards Republicans and, inevitably, their Wall Street backers.