The Obama Presidency Part II: West Wing revamp could boost president’s image

The exodus of President Barack Obama’s closest advisers from the West Wing since the midterm election “shellacking” marks a strategic shift in the Obama Presidency. For the first time, Obama appears to finally embrace the role of a pragmatic leader, looking more like a commander-in-chief than the idealistic candidate elected two years ago.

Much like the Clinton White House after the electoral drubbing it received in 1994, a new set of advisers is replacing staff who entered the White House because of their ties to the campaign. The parallels between the Obama and Clinton presidencies are eerily similar: a young political phenomenon loses public support fighting for health care reform, suffers setbacks in the midterm elections and has to rally the country after a national tragedy.

By shedding many of the operatives that helped him get into office and replacing them with more hardened political figures, Obama is signaling a shift away from progressive Democrats — just like Clinton did. Among the biggest names leaving the White House include Senior Adviser David Axelrod, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers. Axelrod is returning to Chicago to mount the president’s reelection bid — yes, the 2012 campaign has already started — while Gibbs plans to stay on as an outside adviser and Summers will return to Harvard so he can keep his tenure.

Stepping in to fill their places is a menagerie of veterans with the skills to turn the Obama presidency around. Former Clinton Commerce Secretary and JPMorgan Chase executive William Daley will step in as Obama’s chief of staff this week, replacing interim chief of staff Pete Rouse, who has been filling in for another Clinton holdover Rahm Emanuel. Daley is a shrewd pick because of his ties to the business community. His Wall Street credentials should not worry liberals who are convinced Obama is succumbing to pressure from Wall Street once again. Daley has been a fixture on a number of corporate boards, but the chief of staff position is a facilitator, not necessarily an adviser.

Because the president’s biggest problems remain the economy and unemployment, someone like Daley who can make amends with the Chamber of Commerce is needed now more than ever to turn Obama’s weak relations with the business community around.

Obama has also depended too much on the legislature and not enough on executive authority and power of the press to further his agenda. His Congress-centric approach is not going to work with the new Republican majority in the House. Fortunately, Daley has the executive experience and know-how to reinvent Obama’s presidency.

Also bringing some new blood into the White House, Obama for America Campaign Manager David Plouffe and Summers’ replacement, Treasury Adviser Gene Sperling should be able to help revitalize the president’s image. Sperling and Plouffe, much like Daley, are D.C. insiders who can go on television and sell the president’s agenda.

With this infusion of new talents in the West Wing, Obama has the opportunity to make the next two years of his presidency even more productive. At times, Washington appeared to be in gridlock, but Obama still managed to save the automotive industry, push through health care and Wall Street reform, get “don’t ask, don’t tell” repealed, sign the START treaty, and a host of other bills that pulled the nation back from the brink of another depression.

Regardless of this success, his revitalized West Wing will need to take a different approach with the new Congress. Obama should follow Clinton’s example with his new staff ­­— minus that little episode with the intern.


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