White House Chief of Staff William Daley will focus on being a counselor,… (Charles Dharapak, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — As White House Chief of Staff William Daley adjourned a recent morning meeting, a senior staff member whispered a question to another as they left the office: "Is that what it's like in a boardroom?"
It's both a compliment and a criticism White House staffers have offered about Daley's detached management style — he prefers to operate at "30,000 feet," as one senior administration official put it — since he left the corporate world and returned to Washington to run President Obama's team 10 months ago.
This week, President Obama appeared to acknowledge that method wasn't working. On Monday, Daley announced to his staff that he would turn over many duties of daily management to longtime Obama aide Pete Rouse, who was interim chief of staff before Daley arrived. Daley will focus on being a counselor, advisor and surrogate for the president in high-level talks.
White House officials said the change, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, was Daley's idea, and emphasized that he would retain the title of chief of staff. Daley still has the "ultimate responsibility" for what happens, said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.
The move came, however, after a difficult summer. Democrats in and out of Congress blamed Daley for Obama's strategy of seeking a deal on the budget with congressional Republican leaders. The effort failed and, in retrospect, badly weakened the president's standing with voters. Congressional Democrats also blamed Daley, saying he was too aloof.
Making matters worse for Daley was the constant comparison to Obama's first chief of staff, the hyperkinetic Rahm Emanuel, who was ever-present in lawmakers' affairs.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, one of Obama's most important allies in Washington, didn't receive what those familiar with Congress considered a proper visit until Daley wanted to talk about one of Reid's least-favorite topics — free-trade agreements.
Daley, 63, Obama's fellow Chicagoan and a son of legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley, was brought to the White House after the midterm election in hopes that he could provide an orderly process after the administration's frenetic first two years. With his arrival, Obama turned to a strategy that seemed to play to his new chief of staff's strengths — reaching out to business leaders and trying to forge a "grand bargain" with Republicans over the federal budget deficit.
But when the GOP — heavily influenced by its tea party faction and emboldened by the election results — adopted a hard stance, Daley found that the constant showdowns did not match up well with his preferred way of doing business.
"I know he's been frustrated and disappointed in this environment," said Thomas "Mack" McLarty, President Clinton's first chief of staff and a Daley friend.
By the end of the summer, Obama's approval rating had dropped dangerously. So too had Daley's stock among many Democrats.
The bungled scheduling of an appearance by the president before a joint session of Congress in September became emblematic for some. Daley had called House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and suggested a date for the speech, then let the timing become public knowledge — assuming Boehner had agreed to it. Later that day, a sizzling letter landed on his desk: Boehner rejected the requested date. It was an embarrassing moment, and Obama was not pleased.
Boehner's letter was still being circulated when Daley called several staff members into his office for a meeting. Nobody was madder than he about the letter, Daley said in his taut South Side Chicago accent. But, he said, a fight over timing would be unwise.
"He basically said, 'Look, we don't want to fight over a date,' " one senior administration official recalled. "We want to fight over jobs. The American people don't care about the date of the speech. They care about what he says when he gets there."
To Daley's supporters, his ability to dial down the temperature was proof of his ability to keep the White House focused, to be the adult in the room. Detractors say the incident showed he could not adjust to the intensity of Washington's current infighting.
Daley "thought he could sit down with Boehner over a cocktail and work it out, buddy-buddy, boardroom style," said a senior Democratic aide, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. "He didn't take seriously how deeply ingrained the partisanship is."
Obama hopes that Rouse, who worked his way up through the ranks on Capitol Hill, will smooth out the administration's daily affairs.
That may give Daley more of what many believe he wants: more time to talk with business and political leaders and put his gut instincts to work for the president. Regardless, even if Obama is reelected, Daley has declared he is leaving after 2012.
He joked recently that he should have resigned in May, right after the U.S. military operation that killed Osama bin Laden.
"It is a burnout job," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, a Democrat and Daley friend from Illinois. "There is a point at which you just have to say, 'It's somebody else's turn.' "