Bill Daley Takes A Shower

A year ago, I likened President Obama’s newly hired chief of staff, William Daley, to a baseball team’s left-handed relief specialist: He enters the game to deal with a specific situation, and when his job is done (often after pitching to just one batter), he goes back to the bench.

So it does not come as a complete surprise that Daley came out of the game this week. Officially, he took himself out by resigning, but it has been clear since September that Obama was preparing another call to the bullpen.

September, you will recall, is when the president was embarrassed by a scheduling snafu involving Congress. Obama wanted to set out his ill-fated American Jobs Act before a televised joint session of Congress, which meant he needed to use the large House of Representatives chambers. But Obama’s minions failed to clear their preferred date with House Speaker John Boehner, who declined to make the space available at the intended time because it conflicted with a previously scheduled Republican presidential candidates’ debate. The president had to postpone his speech by a day, and Daley took the blame for allowing his boss to suffer the perceived snub.

Soon thereafter, Obama reduced Daley’s responsibilities by giving aide Peter Rouse control of the West Wing’s day-to-day operations. The move made Daley’s early departure a foregone conclusion.

To be fair, Daley – a member of Chicago’s political First Family – was not supposed to be any great expert at dealing with Congress. That was the forte of his predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, a former representative who left to run for mayor of Chicago. (Chicago politics is a very small world, indeed.) Daley was supposed to try to mend fences between the Obama administration and the business community, especially Wall Street, which was deeply offended by both the president’s rhetoric and his policies during the first half of his term.

On that score, Daley did not do a bad job. The administration had much less trouble with Wall Street during 2011 than in the two years prior. The constant sniping between the White House and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which reached a peak during the battle over health care reform, died down. The economy struggled through another difficult year, and unemployment hovered near 9 per cent before trending down in the last few months. But Daley deserves some credit for calming the waters.

That calm was overshadowed by the war that erupted between Obama and the newly beefed-up Republican contingent in Congress. The president’s poll numbers suffered through repeated confrontations over the budget and the debt ceiling. Standard & Poor’s reached the limit of its patience and pulled its AAA rating on U.S. Treasury debt. The president’s jobs bill was stillborn. And Daley lacked both the skills and the background either to smooth relations with Congress or to direct the daily ground war that Obama apparently decided is his best route to re-election.

So the president reached out to Jacob “Jack” Lew, his director of the Office of Management and Budget, to replace Daley. Lew is a loyal Democrat, but he is not the sort who seeks the limelight. He is a technocrat who has worked for all sorts of Democrats, from House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill in the 1980s (a throwback to the old Roosevelt contingent), to centrist President Bill Clinton, to Obama, whose vision – apart from the pursuit, always, of his own re-election – seems to align most closely with those of the Social Democrats of western Europe.

Interestingly, Lew served a stint as chief of Citibank’s global wealth group. This credential will not endear him to Democrats who sympathize with the Occupy Wall Street movement, but it does hint that Obama wants quiet on the Wall Street front to continue through the upcoming campaign.

To continue the baseball analogy, Lew seems to be the setup man. His job is to keep things under control until, ideally, the manager can bring in a closer to put victory on ice. The fact remains, though: You only bring in the closer when you’re winning. If Obama wins re-election, I would expect a new chief of staff to pursue a much more activist agenda in the president’s second term. But if Team Obama falters, Lew will either be the last guy on the mound, or else the next chief of staff will have the least-desired job in the bullpen. They call it mop-up, because that pitcher is left to deal with a game that is already lost.


For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.

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