The latest sign of the unraveling of the Obama White House is a big one. The president’s chief of staff, William Daley, is keeping his title (for now) but evidently being demoted to a kind of ambassador role, charged with “managing relations with influential outsiders.” The Wall Street Journal
’s Carol Lee deadpans
On Monday, Mr. Daley turned over day-to-day management of the West Wing to Pete Rouse, a veteran aide to President Obama, according to several people familiar with the matter. It is unusual for a White House chief of staff to relinquish part of the job.
It is unusual, yes. It’s also very likely to be unsustainable. The power of any chief of staff, and his ability to set the internal tone at the White House and to drive the president’s agenda, derive from the sense that he has the president’s trust and from his complete authority to manage the process by which the White House staff helps the president reach decisions—which is after all what the White House does. Without that “day-to-day management,” as the Journal puts it, there is really nothing left of the job. To rob Daley of that power but leave him in place as a figurehead is a very peculiar move, certain to complicate the process of making policy and political decisions, and to create a great deal of needless discomfort and embarrassment for everyone involved.
The move certainly suggests a continuing difficulty to manage the tension between the president’s two almost equally delusional self images—the pragmatic centrist reaching out to Republicans and the populist progressive fighting for the people against the powerful. These two approaches would require two quite different kinds of political strategies, and each would be well served by a different kind of chief of staff. Of course, President Obama is not actually a pragmatic centrist (witness everything he did in his first two years, his attitude and substantive proposals in every confrontation with this congress, and his assertions that Republicans want dirty air and water and would love to give mercury poisoning to children, for instance), and is not actually a populist progressive (witness his deep ties to and reliance on Wall Street and his overall regulatory agenda which basically amounts to institutionalized crony capitalism, for instance). Rather, he is an elitist liberal technocrat whose definition of pragmatism is agreement with him and whose idea of populism is resentment of people who disagree with him. It’s hard to fathom what the appropriate political strategy (and the appropriate chief of staff) for that sort of president should look like, so it’s not hard to see why he hasn’t found one.
Even so, and even if the president has concluded that Bill Daley is not the right chief for him at this moment, which is certainly his prerogative, just purely as a matter of managing his administration this kind of demotion is peculiar. President Obama came into office with no experience as an executive, and his style of management suggests that nearly three years in office may have given him only the wrong kind of experience. This latest move seems like one he will soon regret.