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A retooled White House

Obama's recent changes show that the president is moving to the center and focusing on the economy.

January 09, 2011|Doyle McManus

Barack Obama's White House is looking more like Bill Clinton's every day.

Last week, for example, President Obama named William M. Daley as White House chief of staff and Gene Sperling as economic policy czar. Daley is a former Clinton Cabinet secretary and Chicago banker who plants himself squarely in the center of the political spectrum. Sperling was a top Clinton advisor for all eight years of that tumultuous presidency.

Obama has even accepted a bit of private coaching from Clinton himself since the Democrats' shellacking in November's congressional election.

By themselves, the top appointments may not look like massive change. In his chief of staff choice, Obama installed one Chicago-born Washington insider, Daley, in place of another, Rahm Emanuel. In the economic job, he chose a Clinton-trained policy wonk, Sperling, to succeed another one-time Clinton aide, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers.

But the changes reflect a confirmation and continuation of Obama's move toward the political center, which began last year and was most evident in his decision to compromise with Senate Republicans over the extension of upper-income tax cuts. Equally important, the staff shifts also reflect a change in the core mission of the Obama White House.

Until the midterm elections, Obama's time in office had been shaped by two primary forces: the mass movement that swept a once-obscure Illinois senator into the White House, and the near-collapse of the economy, which demanded a massive federal response. The motto of that first Obama White House was Emanuel's famous line: "Never let a crisis go to waste." The administration used its popularity and the Democrats' big congressional majority to push through ambitious legislation, including an economic stimulus package, healthcare reform and financial regulation. And it would have liked to have enacted energy and immigration laws too.

Instead, Democrats ran into a backlash from business leaders and swing voters, and lost control of both the House and (as a practical matter) the Senate. So now, as the economy slowly recovers, the White House is retooling for a different mission. Rather than marshaling Democrats, at which Emanuel was supremely talented, the administration will have to find a way to negotiate productively with Republicans. Instead of boosting the economy through government spending, it will have to convince private-sector business leaders that the administration wants to help them invest, expand and create jobs.

That's where Daley, a former JPMorgan Chase executive, comes in. Obama cited his top qualification for this moment in announcing his appointment Thursday: "He's led major corporations. He possesses a deep understanding of how jobs are created and how to grow our economy."

Unlike Emanuel, Daley is seen by many business chieftains as one of them. To the discomfort of liberals, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who spent most of the last two years attacking Obama and raising money to help Republicans, endorsed Daley as "a strong appointment [and] a man of stature."

Daley was critical of the liberal, big-government bent of Obama's first year. He was one of the earliest Clinton veterans to warn that the Obama administration and its congressional allies were, in his words, "advancing an agenda far to the left of most voters." He characterized Obama's healthcare legislation as too radical. And he opposed the creation of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, something Obama successfully pushed hard to have included in the financial regulation bill passed by Congress.

And the criticism wasn't private. "Either we plot a more moderate, centrist course or risk electoral disaster not just in the upcoming midterms but in many elections to come," Daley wrote in a prescient op-ed for the Washington Post in 2009, almost a year before November's election.

A White House chief of staff doesn't determine the agenda of his president, of course. The important thing about Daley's appointment is not that he will push Obama toward the center but that Obama has already decided to steer in that direction.

Obama's move to a more Clintonian centrism was reinforced by Sperling's ascension to the head of the National Economic Council. Like Daley, the longtime political activist has long advocated a pragmatic "third way" between liberal and conservative dogma. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Sperling initially worked for Clinton — Hillary, that is — as a top economic advisor.

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