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Chief of Staff Retains Title, But That’s All

The Wall Street Journal reported that William Daley, hired 10 months ago as White House chief of staff, would see a shift in his “core responsibilities.” On Monday, Daley turned over day-to-day management of the West Wing to Pete Rouse, a veteran aide to President Obama. “It is unusual for a White House chief of staff to relinquish part of the job,” according to the Journal.

Indeed. But the Obama White House insists it wasn’t much of a change at all. “Bill’s still going to be the sort of global presence there, and I don’t really think a whole lot has changed,” a senior White House advisor told Anne Kornblut of the Washington Post.

If so, Dailey was never a genuine chief of staff to begin with.

I have worked in three administrations, including the Bush White House for almost seven years. And while the personalities of chiefs of staff differ markedly – James Baker and Joshua Bolten were very different individuals than Donald Regan and John Sununu – there are certain basic duties that go with the job. The whole point of a chief of staff is to manage the daily affairs of the White House. He rations and allocates the president’s time, hires and fires key personnel, and sets the tone and expectations for the staff.

The chief of staff often is the key figure in terms of deciding which issues are important enough to merit the president’s attention and which are not. He needs to be sure there is an orderly process in place, that decisions are reached on time, and the decisions themselves are followed up on. And he establishes routines that are supposed to make the president’s life both easier and more effective, from staffing process to briefing times to who attends which meeting. Jack Watson, who was Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, once said his role was to protect against “damn fool decisions.”

To turn the chief of staff into an “ambassador” to outside groups – which is the role Daley will now play – is to cut him off at the knees, to drain him of his power, respect and influence. Bill Daley retains the title of chief of staff, but that is all.

It seems clear to me Daley is a victim of a wider problem: a dysfunctional White House that is characterized by infighting and palace intrigue (we see that in quotes from unnamed current and former White House aides that heavily criticize Daley). When Obama became president, he had no executive experience, and it shows. “No Drama Obama” has had plenty of drama to contend with during the course of his presidency.

Oh, and one other thing: the power in the White House now clearly rests with Obama’s immediate political circle. They have no interest in governing, which I suppose is understandable, given how inept they are at it. They simply want to re-elect the president – and for this particular president, this means a White House that is hyper-partisan, in constant attack mode. Bill Daley, a former Clinton Cabinet member and a decent human being, is cut from a different cloth. Obama has an election to win, a nation to divide, and (eventually) an opponent to destroy. That is his only path to victory. And so he has decided to turn to the two Davids – Plouffe and Axelrod – to do his dirty work. (In Game Change, John Heilemann and Mark Halperin wrote, “Axelrod was a master of the dark arts of negative campaigning. The first major profile of him, 20 years earlier in Chicago Magazine, was titled ‘Hatchet Man: The Rise of David Axelrod.'”)

The Politics of Public Slander is the option the president has clearly chosen; in the World According to Obama, Republicans desire dirty air and dirty water; want the elderly, autistic children, and Down Syndrome children to fend for themselves; and always place party above country. Given all that, I suppose one could argue the president has picked the right (hatchet) men.

 



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