White House battle mode

To paraphrase Forrest Gump, Barack Obama is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you are going to get.

Fresh back from his holiday in Hawaii, the president and his designated “trial balloon floaters” made clear Obama has been thinking his own unique thoughts out there in the Pacific. 

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Before Christmas, the White House seemed to be discouraging talk of senior staff changes — certainly there would be no “shakeup,” the anonymous sources said. Uh huh. It turns out only 10 or so senior slots will change hands — but of course it could be even more.

The most iconic change being floated is the prospect of William Daley coming back to government. He’s a former Clinton administration Cabinet official and scion of the most powerful political family in the history of Chicago’s tumultuous politics. Clearly the president has an affinity for hometown pols — as have a lot of presidents. But there does not seem to be a close historical tie between Daley and Obama. Daley did support Obama despite his long ties to the Clintons and he did serve on the Obama-Biden transition team, but there is no evidence of the two men having a close working or personal relationship over the years.

What the Daley balloon does do is send some mixed messages to important constituencies of the president. Progressive Democrats, many of whom have been perplexed by some Obama moves of the first two years, are really scratching their heads over this one. Daley is not just the consensus builder-compromiser that Rahm Emanuel proved to be in the chief of staff position — he’s a proven advocate for the business community. Daley not only led the battle for NAFTA, which is still unpopular with a pack of strange bedfellows that includes labor and the Tea Party right — he’s also a certified member of Wall Street’s leadership. 

As Midwest chairman of JPMorgan Chase, Daley reluctantly accepted TARP funds. He professed not to like the idea and made sure the huge bank quickly paid back those funds at a profit to the government, but he was leading a huge bank that was branded as part of the problem. He’s also on the board of Merck & Co., one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. He is a huge advocate of international trade — even with (gasp) China!

In talking with a number of progressive political professionals the last few days, I’ve heard a consistent refrain: “The White House needs a tough taskmaster who will knock heads if necessary, so I like the idea of Daley going there — but it’s like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse! Did we elect a progressive president or not?” Well, activist progressives have been asking that question over the past two years, and the answer seems to be that POTUS is a pragmatic progressive — whatever that is. 

The thought of Daley running the White House brings no clarity to the question. Everyone seems to agree that he’s tough enough to make sure the president gets what he wants — but is he also tough enough to force the administration even further toward the center in the next two years?

The business community certainly seems to think he is. “He’d be a huge asset,” said one business leader on Wednesday. Big business — not to be confused with Main Street business — believes it’d have someone in the White House who spoke its language, understood its issues and would be a powerful advocate for a more business-friendly agenda. That is just what has progressive America worried. To those on the left, the Obama administration is already too friendly with Wall Street and has given big business far too much in recent legislation. 

Whether Daley actually gets the job remains to be seen. But it is clear the president plans to make some substantive — although possibly not dramatic — staff changes that he thinks will help him deal with a new balance of power in Congress and prepare for a tough reelection campaign. After playing coy over Robert Gibbs’s future as White House press secretary for the last couple of months, the administration dropped all pretense Wednesday and announced the veteran adviser is moving into a more political, reelection-focused mode. We might discover over the next few weeks that the real message in the “box of chocolates” that is the Obama administration is that the president is putting the team into battle mode. A Daley in charge of the White House certainly does just that.

Goddard is a founding partner of 
political consultants Goddard Claussen.
E-mail: ben@gcpublicaffairs.com