President Obama may be enjoying some Christmas down time with his family in Hawaii, but he and his senior staff are hard at work on the size and shape of his White House team as they prepare for the 2012 elections – just around the corner in terms of what it takes to win a second term.
Expect some new faces in prominent administration positions, including a new National Economic Director to replace Larry Summers. Defense Secretary Robert Gates – a highly-respected Republican holdover from the Bush administration – can be expected to leave as well.
"I think that it would be a mistake to wait until January 2012," Gates told Foreign Policy magazine in August. "This is not the kind of job you want to fill in the spring of an election year."
Important changes already have been made. Austan Goolsbee has replaced Christina Romer as chair of the Council of Economic Advisors. The White House chief of staff is no longer the hard-charging Rahm Emanuel but the quieter Pete Rouse. Peter Orszag left as head of the Office of Management and Budget, replaced by Jacob Lew.
So at this point, officials say, don’t expect across-the-board replacements in administration staff.
"I don't expect quite honestly big changes,” press secretary Robert Gibbs said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday. “I think we've had a very capable and good Cabinet that has helped move the president's agenda forward.”
In 2011, Obama can be expected to spend much more time politicking outside of Washington, aides say.
"He had to spend almost every waking hour in Washington working on solving that [economic] crisis," senior adviser Valerie Jarrett said on NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday. "And what he missed sorely was engagement with the American people.”
If he’s able to do that, it serves two important purposes: Personal lobbying on behalf of policy issues, particularly now that Republicans have taken over the House of Representatives and increased their power in the Senate, while also reconnecting with voters – as he did so charismatically during the 2008 campaign.
"We're determined in the new year to make sure that his schedule reflects his priority,” Jarrett said.
The political landscape has changed dramatically in the past two years.
The tea party movement has shaken up both major parties – Republicans perhaps more so than Democrats. Economic improvement (especially employment) has inched along. The war in Afghanistan has escalated.
Obama can claim significant victories in recent weeks – a deal on taxes and unemployment compensation, an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gays serving in the military, ratification of the START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia, and help for 911 first responders. (Not bad during a lame-duck period – especially for a guy who acknowledges he took a “shellacking” in the midterm elections.)
Before that there was financial industry reform, economic stimulus measures, a new consumer protection agency, a tougher food safety law, and most controversially health-care reform.
Obama has not been able to win the bipartisanship in Washington he pledged to bring about. But his achievements have included compromises with congressional Republicans – not always what his Democratic base wanted to see.
But his movement toward a sort of domestic realpolitik – call it “triangulation” or not – increases his chances for reelection.
One hint: His approval rating among liberal Democrats has inched down a bit, according to Gallup’s most recent findings, but they edged up a notch among moderate/liberal Republicans. If he can reclaim and hold the political middle ground, he’ll have a better chance in 2012.