William Daley, Obama’s Corporate Ambassador?

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For months the Obama White House has been hounded by complaints–mostly from the right, but sometimes also from the center-left–that it has done an inept job of communicating with corporate America at a moment of economic crisis. Some of that was to be expected, naturally. Big business always leans Republican. And Obama’s core first-term agenda–health care reform, Wall Street reform, and a climate change bill–all poked the business community (with important exceptions on every front,  to be sure) in the gut. But even the president himself has admitted a failure to communicate clearly with the business community. (“I’ve got to take responsibility in terms of making sure that I make clear to the business community as well as to the country that the most important thing we can do is to boost and encourage our business sector and make sure that they’re hiring,” Obama said at his Nov. 3 post-election press conference.)

Obama may be about to make a dramatic gesture to that effect. Word is leaking that the president may tap bank executive and former Commerce Secretary William Daley to be his next chief of staff. Corporate America could hardly ask for a stronger signal of empathy from the West Wing. Daley, 62, is an archetypal face of the 1990s pro-business wing of the Democratic Party. He joined the Clinton administration in 1993 with the specific mission of helping the president pass the North American Free Trade Agreement over strong opposition from labor and Congressional liberals. As Commerce Secretary Daley also led the fight for permanent normal trade relations with China, also anathema to the unions. Labor animus was so great that, when Al Gore named Daley his 2000 presidential campaign manager, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney declared Daley’s positions had put him “squarely on the opposite side of working families.” (Daley may be best remembered from that campaign for his dramatic appearance onstage at 3:10 am on election night in Nashville to declare that Gore had called George W. Bush and withdrawn his earlier concession in anticipation of a recount.)

Since then Daley has been making a handsome living as a corporate executive, most recently on the executive board of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co and on the boards of several other big corporations, including Boeing and the giant drug maker Merck. Over that time Daley’s pro-business views haven’t changed: Some liberals are already up in arms about Daley’s ties to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has furiously battled the Obama agenda, and where Daley co-chaired a 2007 commission which called for deregulation of U.S. financial markets less than two years before the 2008 financial meltdown. (A Chamber spokesman declined to comment on the Daley speculation.) Daley also opposed the financial reform bill’s creation of a new consumer protection agency, an office dear to many Democrats and grassroots liberals. And he has suggested that Obama misread the national political mood when he pushed a sweeping health care reform bill, telling the Times that in 2008 the U.S. “moved to center left — not left.”

Of course, there’s far, far more to being White House chief of staff than making nice with American industry. And Daley, who learned his craft in Chicago’s most famous political family, is known as a master political operative. In June 2000 the New York Times described “broad agreement among those who know him that Mr. Daley is perhaps the best political mind in President Clinton’s cabinet.” At turns gentle and brutish–that same Times profile called him “vindictive” and “Machiavellian”–Daley has been described throughout his career as the kind of focused, get-things-done, no-drama manager that Obama likes to rely on. (It doesn’t hurt either that Daley has close ties to Obama’s Chicago inner circle, including former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and senior advisors David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett.) And it’s not as though Daley can”t countenance a bad word about big business. It was shortly after he joined the Gore campaign in June 2000 that the candidate refocused his message around the populist theme of “powerful forces and powerful interests,” including big energy and health corporations, squashing the little guy in America.

That said, William Daley’s appointment as chief of staff, should it happen, would hardly be a sign that Barack Obama intends to spend the next two years digging in against the GOP and corporate America. Quite the contrary.