As Obama plans White House reshuffle, where are the new faces?

A major game of musical chairs appears to be in the works at the White House. But without an infusion of new blood, some wonder, will the reshuffle get Obama back on track?

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters/file
White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod departs with President Obama (not pictured) to spend the weekend campaigning for Democratic candidates on Oct. 30. Media reports suggest Axelrod will leave Washington in a White House reshuffle.

President Obama is in deep planning mode for a major staff reshuffle. According to news reports, former campaign manager David Plouffe will join the White House in early January and senior adviser David Axelrod will return to Chicago to work on Mr. Obama’s reelection campaign, perhaps as soon as right after the State of the Union address in late January or early February.

That schedule allows some overlap for the two men to effect a smooth transition. It also has Mr. Axelrod returning to Chicago somewhat earlier than previously planned, a sign of just how eager he is to reunite with his family full-time and exhausted from four years of nonstop campaigning and then governing.

The story, first reported by CNN and sourced to a senior administration official and Democratic strategist, also lays out other possible staff changes: Energy czar Carol Browner may become deputy chief of staff, as the current deputies, Jim Messina and Mona Sutphen, are expected to depart. Mr. Messina is reportedly moving to Chicago to help with the campaign.

Congressional liaison Phil Schiliro is expected to be promoted either to deputy chief of staff or senior adviser to interim chief of staff Pete Rouse. Another insider, Rob Nabors, a senior aide to Mr. Rouse, is seen as most likely to replace Mr. Schiliro.

The common thread in all these changes is that there’s not a new face in the bunch. Nor have any other major personnel changes to date brought in many from outside Obamaworld: Rouse was a senior Obama adviser before replacing Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff. Tom Donilon replaced his boss, National Security Adviser James Jones. Austan Goolsbee also replaced his boss, Christina Romer, as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Jacob Lew did move all the way over from the State Department to become budget director, replacing Peter Orszag. And the White House is searching for someone from the business world to replace Larry Summers when he leaves his post as director of the White House National Economic Council to return to Harvard.

But after the shellacking Obama took in the Nov. 2 midterm elections, some Democrats have called on the president to bring in some outsiders with new ideas on policy and approach.

When President Clinton suffered his own shellacking in the 1994 midterms, he began consulting – in secret, at first – with conservative strategist Dick Morris. Mr. Clinton credits Mr. Morris with helping him learn the art of “triangulation” – moving to the center and working both sides of the partisan divide to enact new policies.

Whether Obama is able to make dramatic changes to his own modus operandi is one of the central questions heading into January, when the newly Republican-controlled House takes office. But the idea that Obama is planning late-night phone conversations with a secret arch-conservative adviser seems a bit of a stretch.

"I'm skeptical that there is a parallel Dick Morris," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg at a Monitor breakfast Nov. 18.

Some analysts suggest that Obama skip the Clinton model of triangulation altogether and focus on advertising the accomplishments of his first two years, starting with health-care reform.

“My sense is that he’s frankly forgotten the art of campaigning,” says John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “When the health-care bill passed, he should have hit the road and told the American public what it was about. Instead, Republicans filled the vacuum, telling people it was evil.”

One curious point in the anticipated White House staff changes is that the 70-person communications shop has not yet had a thorough makeover. True, Obama is already on his third communications director, Dan Pfeiffer. And press secretary Robert Gibbs has long been rumored ready to leave the podium for a senior advisory position inside the West Wing.

But maybe the personnel roster matters less than it seems.

“That’s small ball,” says Mr. Geer. “Obama needs to get out there and promote what he’s accomplished.”

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