William Daley: Obama signals shift to center with pick for chief of staff

Obama brings aboard William Daley, a moderate Democrat and fellow Chicagoan, as his new chief of staff. Daley, seen as a tough but fair manager, could help White House ties to the business community.

By , Staff writer

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    President Barack Obama listens as his new White House Chief of Staff William Daley makes a statement in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 6.
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President Obama’s selection Thursday of William Daley as his new chief of staff brings a senior, politically experienced figure into the White House inner circle, and sends a clear signal of the administration’s shift toward the center.

Mr. Daley, who served as commerce secretary under President Clinton, is currently a senior executive at JP Morgan Chase in Chicago, and could help Mr. Obama in his efforts to improve relations with the business community. A scion of the storied Chicago political family, Daley comes from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, a point that irritates some liberals.

Daley’s selection also invites charges that Obama, also a Chicagoan, is retooling his administration around the city’s political “machine.” But in fact, Obama and Daley don’t know each other well, and it may be fairer to suggest that Daley brings an outsider’s eye to a White House that has been accused of insularity.

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Still, Obama didn’t shy away from the Chicago connection – and Daley family history – in his announcement from the East Room of the White House, calling Daley “an experienced public servant, a devoted patriot, my friend, [and] fellow Chicagoan.”

“He possesses a deep understanding of how jobs are created and how to grow our economy,” Obama said. “And needless to say, Bill also adds a smidgen of awareness of how our system of government and politics works. You might say it is a genetic trait.”

Daley, too, brought his family – and President Kennedy -- into his brief remarks. He recalled a visit to the White House 50 years ago this month with his parents and brothers and sisters “to visit a young president, who went on to show great strength, leadership, and vision in the face of enormous challenges in those times.”

“You, Mr. President, have proven your strength, your leadership, your vision during a most difficult time for our nation and for the world,” Daley continued. “You have also shown through your example that public service is an honorable calling and I am pleased to answer your call.”

Daley replaces interim chief of staff Pete Rouse, who will return to his position as a counselor to Obama. Mr. Rouse took over for Rahm Emanuel, who resigned in September to run for mayor of Chicago. The retiring mayor, Richard M. Daley, is William Daley’s older brother; both are sons of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley.

Now two years in, the Obama administration is at a natural moment for personnel changes. But the November election results – handing Republicans control of the House amid marked public dissatisfaction with the Democrats – have added an imperative for reexamination of both policies and politics. Obama has said he hopes to move forward with the kind of bipartisanship that marked the productive lame-duck session of Congress, and Daley will be a key player in shaping that new approach. Expect to see Daley regularly on television as a surrogate for Obama.

The White House chief of staff, which does not require congressional confirmation, is one of the most influential posts in government, perhaps topped only by the president. All policy matters run through the chief of staff, who makes many decisions on the president’s behalf.

Style: Tough but fair

By all accounts, Daley is a good manager, with a different style from Mr. Emanuel’s.

“He is direct, and he can be very tough ... but he’s very friendly and fair,” says Matt Bennett, vice president for public affairs at Third Way, a moderate Democratic think tank on whose board Daley serves. “He’s nothing like Rahm, who I know very well. He doesn’t get all worked up and yell and scream.”

Mr. Bennett maintains that Daley’s policy differences with the Obama administration have now become irrelevant. Daley will do the president’s bidding, just as Vice President Joe Biden fell in line on Afghanistan, despite his reported lack of enthusiasm for the expanded US presence there. But liberals might still be concerned to know that Daley opposed Obama’s sweeping health-care reform and creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a biproduct of financial regulatory reform. Daley was calling for a tack to the center long before last November’s midterms.

“All that is required for the Democratic Party to recover its political footing is to acknowledge that the agenda of the party's most liberal supporters has not won the support of a majority of Americans – and, based on that recognition, to steer a more moderate course on the key issues of the day, from health care to the economy to the environment to Afghanistan,” Daley wrote in the Washington Post on Dec. 24, 2009.

Bennett does expect Daley, whom he knew from Daley’s days managing Vice President Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000, to help set a policy course focused on economic growth.

“The White House recognizes that the way out of our economic situation is to get the $2 trillion on corporate balance sheets into the economy,” says Bennett. “One of the reasons he selected Daley, among many, is he will be able to reach out to the corporate community, find out what they need or expect from the president that will help, and make that happen.”

Liberal reaction

Liberal activists reacted with disdain to the news of Daley’s appointment.

“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,” said Justin Ruben, executive director of MoveOn.org, in a statement.

But at least one high-profile progressive is enthusiastic. On Wednesday, speaking at a Monitor breakfast, former Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean called Daley’s expected appointment a “huge plus,” in part because Daley is an outsider and “sees things the way people outside of Washington do.”

Dean also expects a change from the contemptuous way in which he felt some White House officials treated progressives. Even though Dean disagrees with Daley a lot politically, he said, “I do think, A, he is a grown-up and B, he gets that you don’t treat people like you know everything and they don’t.”

Obama is expected to make another key appointment to his White House team on Friday, the replacement for Larry Summers as head of the National Economic Council. It is widely rumored that Gene Sperling, an adviser to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, will get the job. Like Daley, he is also a Clinton administration alumnus.

These moves follow the announcement Wednesday that White House press secretary Robert Gibbs will be leaving the podium in early February. Obama reportedly wanted input from his new chief of staff on who should replace Mr. Gibbs, and now that Daley is named, the deliberations can begin in earnest. Names being mentioned include some currently working inside the Obama White House and some outsiders.

RELATED: What's your 2010 political IQ? Take the quiz.

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