When President Obama announced that “his friend, fellow Chicagoan Bill Daley” would become his next chief of staff, the White House empolyees who had gathered in the East Room, more than a hundred of the most senior administration officials, applauded politely for about 15 seconds, giving their new boss his due.
A few moments later, when Obama announced that Pete Rouse, the current chief of staff and the longtime behind-the-scenes manager of Obama’s world, had agreed reluctantly to stay on for another two years as a senior counselor, the room all but exploded in gratitude. People stood to applaud this time. The president stepped back from the microphone, clapping his own hands. He patted Rouse, who started shifting nervously on the stage, on the back. The adulation lasted nearly three times as long. “As you might have noticed, people like Pete,” Obama joked, when it was all over.
The contrast was not a slight to Daley, but a rare recognition of Rouse, who likes nothing more than to not be recognized. For the last six years, no man has done more to shape President Obama’s official duties, and the personnel that surrounds him, than Rouse, and as the White House spins forward into the second half of the first term, Rouse’s unseen hand will continue to shape the internal workings of government. For many in the East Room audience, this was welcome news.
The logic behind Daley’s selection is easy to see. He has been involved in national Democratic politics for more than three decades, as a counselor and adviser to Walter Mondale, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and many others. He has been a lobbyist and a corporate CEO, a banker, a cabinet member and a member of the board of directors for companies as varied as Boeing and Fannie Mae, that once profitable (for board members and stock holders) government-sponsored mortgage giant that collapsed spectacularly with the housing market in 2008. He is known as a brilliant strategic thinker who is always calm under pressure, and he helped President Clinton usher through the NAFTA free-trade agreement in 1993. He has deep ties to both Wall Street and the broader business community, making him the natural point man in Obama’s stated mission of repairing his relationship with corporate America over the coming months. Perhaps most importantly, he is personally close to many in Obama’s orbit, particularly senior adviser David Axelrod and former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. In the coming battle with Republicans over issues of spending, and in the 2012 campaign, he is expected to be an able war-time consigliere, able to move between the Congress, the business world and the Sunday show circuit with steady gravitas.
Like Emanuel, however, he is not a natural manager, with less interest in handling paperwork and personnel than in serving as a point person and strategist. So the new White House structure envisioned by the president has established some backstops. Rouse, who is the closest thing to an in-house management consultant that the White House may ever have had, will stay on to put out fires and help steer the administrative ship. He will be aided by David Plouffe, the president’s former campaign manager, who will report for duty on Monday, preparing to take the place of Axelrod, with an expanded management role. Daly is also expected to make some other hires of his own, as both current deputy chiefs of staff, Jim Messina and Mona Sutphen, are expected to depart.
It is a structure that seems to have been well received by White House staff, who have been riven by some anxiety in recent weeks over exactly what all the coming changes will mean. A few moments after Rouse’s standing ovation, the president handed the microphone over to Daley to say a few words. It was then that the staff rose to their feet for him, making clear their assent to his new role as their leader.
Photo Credit: Daley, Obama and Rouse in the East Room today.