09.07.10

Is a White House Shakeup Ahead?

With Chicago’s mayor stepping down, White House enforcer Rahm Emanuel became the leading contender for the job. Richard Wolffe on his chances of leaving—and whether other key aides might follow him out the door.

Democrats are facing the prospect of a Republican tidal wave, as unemployment inches up and President Obama’s approval ratings tumble down. As the fall campaign heats up in earnest, Obama needs his political team to blot out distractions as they focus on the daunting challenge of trying to retain control of the House and Senate. Their focus will be sorely tested by the surprise news Tuesday afternoon that Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago would not run for re-election—sparking speculation that Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff and a key player in the midterm elections, might head home to Illinois to seek the job.

The announcement is sure to test Team Obama’s unity—and could speed up the timetable for a major shakeup of the White House political operation, rumored to be coming as soon as the midterm balloting is over. A look at the major players and the odds of their defecting:  

Emanuel left the door wide open—and the White House will have a much tougher time selling the idea that he plans to stick around for another year.

1. Rahm Emanuel. The Chicago native and one-time local congressman may have helped push through the massive Recovery Act in the early days of the Obama administration. And he might have been a vital player in getting Congress to pass health care reform. But he’s made little secret of his long-held dream to run for mayor. Just four months ago, he told PBS’s Charlie Rose that he missed running for office and the contact with constituents. “First of all, let me say it this way, I hope Mayor Daley seeks reelection. I will work and support him if he seeks reelection,” he said. “But if Mayor Daley doesn’t, one day I would like to run for mayor of the City of Chicago. That’s always been an aspiration of mine even when I was in the House of Representatives.”

The White House moved quickly to quash speculation that Emanuel might actually jump, dismissing the idea as “silliness.” Deputy press secretary Bill Burton told reporters that Emanuel was simply talking about a childhood ambition. “It’s something that many kids in Chicago dream of growing up to be a mayor, so it’s one of the great jobs in American politics,” he said. “But it’s just an ambition. When I was a kid I wanted to be an astronaut.”

Now Emanuel is far closer to becoming mayor than Burton is to flying into orbit. In a statement, Emanuel pointedly avoided any reference to his own ambition, saying only that he was surprised by Daley’s decision not to run. “While Mayor Daley surprised me today with his decision to not run for reelection, I have never been surprised by his leadership, dedication and tireless work on behalf of the city and the people of Chicago,” he said. In other words, he left the door wide open—and the White House will have a much tougher time selling the idea that Emanuel plans to stick around for another year.

2. David Axelrod. Senior adviser David Axelrod has publicly expressed his desire to return to Chicago to be closer to his family. However, The New York Times recently reported that Axelrod has extended the lease on his Washington apartment. And Axe is certainly showing no public signs of quitting the national fight before the midterms, blasting the president’s GOP critics for obstructionism (“their strategy is to lock everything down and not let anything happen,” he told the Huffington Post. It’s entirely possible that he can have his cake and eat it too—hanging on in DC through the 2010 vote, returning to Chicago to help launch Obama’s 2012 re-election (which will be headquartered in the Windy City), and holding onto his DC flat to keep his hand in Washington as needed. However it plays out, Axelrod is unlikely to untether himself from Obama anytime soon.

Reihan Salam: Obama for Mayor!If he were to head for the exits, he’d leave a big hole in the lineup. He runs two key operations in Obama’s orbit. He effectively edits the speechwriters, channeling the president’s voice. And he runs the White House network of polling and focus group consultants, drawing on extensive analysis of policy, language and political strategy. Axelrod is one of the most important players in shaping Obama’s public reaction to the news cycle.  

3. David Plouffe. Perhaps the best news for Obama—and Democrats nationwide—is the return of David Plouffe, the principle architect of the president’s winning 2008 strategy. Plouffe is engaged in the midterms as an outside adviser on strategy and message—a disciplined manager of logistical and ground operations who can tap the massive email list built during Obama’s run to help Democratic candidates this fall.

Plouffe has signaled he’ll return to the White House inner circle within a few months. His re-entry could either take the form of a senior White House position, or of a senior consultant to the re-election campaign.

4. Robert Gibbs. The moves made by the three advisers listed above may well determine the next job for press secretary Robert Gibbs, whose duties include offering strategic advice that goes far beyond press briefings at the podium. Inside the White House press office there is a strong expectation that Gibbs will be moving on to a new position in the medium term—likely to a more strategic job as counselor, where he could advise the president without tending to the press or managing a large team. Where Gibbs lands, and who takes his job, remain unclear. In any case, his close relationship to the president suggests his new desk will not be situated far from the Oval Office. Should he make the move, his deputy, Bill Burton, would likely fill his shoes.

5. Jim Messina. Deputy chief of staff Jim Messina has long been tipped to run the re-election campaign, but his current job may well place him in line for a subpoena if the GOP takes control of the House of Representatives. Messina was involved in conversations with Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff in an effort to convince him not to run in the Democratic primary in Colorado. Republicans have argued that the effort mirrors a similar strategy to convince Joe Sestak not to run in Pennsylvania. Republicans licking their chops over the prospect of political payback could well make Messina a prime target if they wrest control of Capitol Hill from the Democrats. Still, it’s not clear how the Republicans might force Messina to talk wherever he works, given this White House’s determination to invoke executive privilege, as the Bush and Clinton teams did.  

Amid all the speculation, there are a few core members Obama can count on to stay put no matter what. Senior advisers Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse are two of the most trusted and loyal staffers inside the West Wing. Jarrett is a family friend of the Obamas, who joined the presidential campaign in part to represent their voice in internal discussions. Rouse set up Obama’s Senate office as his first chief of staff and has close ties with many White House officials as well as senators and their staff. Both Jarrett and Rouse seem highly unlikely to change jobs any time soon.

Richard Wolffe is Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.