If life was peachy in the White House, there would be no need to shift responsibilities. On the other hand, staff shake-ups are usually accompanied by changes in titles.
News that Pete Rouse, counselor to the president and a popular figure inside the White House, will take on an expanded “operational and coordination role” in the West Wing fits into a storyline about a president who is unhappy with the performance of his current chief of staff, William Daley, and feels unprepared to begin an election campaign with his org chart ante bellum. This isn't exactly what's really happening, however.
(INTERACTIVE GRAPHIC: See Inside Obama's West Wing)
Over the summer, there were plenty of screw-ups, ranging from an aborted attempt to schedule a presidential address the night of a Republican debate to a disastrously concluded negotiation about the debt ceiling. But since then, beginning with a well-received presidential speech on jobs, there has been significantly less friction.
Rouse, 66, was Obama’s Senate chief of staff and served for a short while as his interim chief of staff after Rahm Emanuel decamped to run for mayor of Chicago and before Daley joined in January. An avuncular, introverted cat lover, Rouse has an encyclopedic knowledge of government and is a master of the Washington game. He rarely speaks to the press.
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The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that Daley would play a role as “ambassador,” managing the president’s relationships with outside groups and interests, while Rouse, vastly more popular with White House rank-and-file, would tend to the day-to-day operations of the staff.
But a White House official said Daley will still embody the chief of staff’s role, presiding over staff meetings and making critical decisions as delegated by the president. Indeed, it was Daley who opened Tuesday's early morning senior staff conclave, even getting in a brief joke at his own expense.
"A little bit more is being made of this than is in fact happening," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "Bill Daley is the chief of staff and retains responsibility."
Rouse will coordinate the functions of the White House’s two main power centers: the communications shop headed by Dan Pfeiffer and the political shop headed by senior adviser David Plouffe. Functionally, this means that if other staff members have problems with decisions made by those offices, they can go to Rouse. When Daley took over from Emanuel (after a six-week period known affectionately as the Rouse Interregnum), he tried to imprint his own management style on the West Wing. Free-wheeling large meetings were replaced with smaller, time-limited gatherings. Doors were closed. Adopting a common historical chief-of-staff tactic, Daley limited direct access to Obama, promising instead to serve as an honest broker for all opinions that made it to his office. Where Emanuel micromanaged, Daley stood back and picked his projects. This allowed the more aggressive White House centers of power, like communications, to acquire more of it, and left others to wonder, even daily, who was making strategy, political, and scheduling decisions.
As the press chews on the story today, the White House will no doubt take exception to characterizations of the change in roles as a staff shake-up, and will attempt to minimize the perception of tension and confusion within the president’s inner circle.
Several disgruntled Democratic donors who have attended events with Daley say they have complained to him about the way major political decisions are pre-cooked in advance with Plouffe, and then announced as fait accompli to senior staff, who subsequently complain about the chain of command to these outsiders.
Daley has acknowledged in these meetings that the president still relies on his closest aides -- Plouffe, Valerie Jarrett, and David Axelrod (now in Chicago) -- more heavily.
In his own meetings with donors, Obama has heard complaints about how, at times, the political and press shops seem poorly integrated with the part of the White House that creates and sells policy. Members of Congress have complained that Daley is not Emanuel, a self-evident point that nonetheless has had an impact on negotiations. Though Daley does not get along with some senior Democrats on the Hill, plenty of senior White House officials do.
Part of this is a function of Obama's political capital -- or lack thereof. There is almost no legislation he can propose that has a chance of passing Congress, and many of his initiatives have taken the form of executive orders, collected under the communications umbrella of "we can't wait."