White House Chief of Staff William Daley liked to joke to friends when he took the job last January that at best he would have six months before his managerial skills were picked apart. June passed, and there wasn’t a peep.
“It looks like I got lucky and got three extra months,” Daley joked to a colleague this week.
For weeks, White House officials have been bracing for a series of news articles about internal dysfunction within the White House inner circle, a familiar Washington ritual when a president hits a political low point. On Friday, after a tough summer for Barack Obama, they got them.
If the Bush administration was curt when responding to stories about West Wing intrigue, Obama’s team is downright dismissive, believing that no one outside the Beltway cares.
The challenge is to prevent these stories from driving Washington’s conversation to a place where politically engaged Americans do pay attention. It matters how well a White House is run, especially to Americans skeptical of government’s ability to solve problems.
Complaints about how any White House communicates with the public, manages its affairs, and forms its policies usually contain a kernel of truth. The onus for their resolution in the Obama administration rests with Daley, senior adviser David Plouffe and Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer.
The White House publicly defended Daley. "He took over the job at a pretty critical and remarkable time, if you think about the changes that came with the midterm elections ... to enter office when the shootings happened in Tucson and everything that has gone since,” spokesman Jay Carney said.
Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff, was much more familiar with the Hill, having left his job as a House member to join the White House. He was more eager to engage a Congress controlled by Democrats that could get things done.
With Obama's poll numbers plummeting, the economy in the doldrums, and unemployment stuck at above 9 percent, Plouffe tried to steel the White House staff for what he would call a tough summer.
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Plouffe’s advice was to believe in the strategy: that the vote in 2010 was a referendum on broken government, and that Obama will do well for himself if he comes out of debates and battles looking like a reasonable person. The strategy has been set, and although some want to reopen it, the president does not. He's convinced that it suits his strength and outlook well, and he trusts Plouffe to oversee its implementation.
But critics have several specific complaints.
One is that Plouffe, supremely self-assured, remains committed to a strategy that helped Obama win the presidency in 2008, but that he may not be successfully adapting it to a much different time.
Another is that the policy process seems too ad hoc and too driven by e-mail chains, rather than by meetings where different sides can argue their cases. This may be because the world moves too quickly for strategic planning to be really effective. "Maybe the only way you can do policy is by e-mail chains," one of the officials said.
"If the economy was going well, you wouldn't see this sniping,” was how one administration official put it.
One senior Democrat close to the White House blamed some of the fire directed at Daley on tension between Obama’s campaign in Chicago and the White House, calling the chief of staff an easy target because of his latecomer status.
“He’s a boy from Chicago, but he’s not one of the boys from Chicago. There’s a little bit of that still,” said the Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of discussing high-level disagreements.
“Daley is not an Obama-styled guy. For my money, I think that’s fine. There’s a lot of circular thinking…. It’s not a decision tree. It’s really more of a decision wreath. There’s not a lot of direction, and Daley gives that, and doesn’t give it in a way people like.”
Daley may close his doors, but when Emanuel’s was open, “we would get yelled at. So I’m not sure why people are complaining,” a West Wing aide to the president said.
Fire is also coming from the Hill, and some of it friendly. Senate Democratic anger at Daley spiked during debt-ceiling talks in July and has continued.
Frustration with White House outreach continued this week. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was irked that the White House took seven days to brief Senate Democrats--at a Thursday luncheon--on Obama's job plan. An aide said that the delay left Reid and Democratic leaders struggling to lay out plans for taking up the bill.
Congressional Democrats want to see Obama fight more, said one former Hill leadership aide who is now a lobbyist. His capitulation to the demand from House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that Obama move the date of his address to a joint session infuriated them. "People were like, 'Are you kidding me? You're the president. Tell him to (expletive) off.' "
George Condon, Dan Friedman, Jim O'Sullivan, and Nicole Duran contributed