President Obama listens as new Chief of Staff William Daley makes a statement in the East Room of the White House., J. Scott Applewhite / AP
Bill Daley, whom President Obama has just named to be his new chief of staff, is a banker, former Commerce secretary under Bill Clinton, and the brother and son of Chicago mayors. This may sound like a fairly typical Obama appointment, but it is actually a significant shift. Daley, a centrist, has been publicly critical of the direction of the Democratic Party under Obama. In 2009 he wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post warning Democrats, “Either we plot a more moderate, centrist course or risk electoral disaster not just in the upcoming midterms but in many elections to come.” Last year he told The New York Times that the White House had “miscalculated” on health-care reform. “The election of ’08 sent a message that after 30 years of center-right governing, we had moved to center left—not left.” And when former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel asked Daley, the Midwest chairman of JPMorgan, to lend his support to financial regulations, which would have been a public-relations coup for the administration, Daley declined, saying he opposed the proposal.
Sure, Obama wants an emissary from the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party in a core strategic role. But Daley’s past harsh words could also help the ailing president. To bring in an external critic as chief of staff is an unusual move, but it is not unprecedented. Recent history shows that presidents have made such pivots at similar junctures, when they were politically embattled and seeking to recapture the political center or change the narrative of their presidency.
In 1987 Ronald Reagan replaced his chief of staff, Donald Regan, who had taken a lot of blame for the administration’s embarrassing Iran-contra scandal. Reagan brought in Howard Baker, the Republican Senate leader from Tennessee, a relative moderate. (Years earlier he had called Reagan’s supply-side tax policy “a riverboat gamble.”) “He reflected the more moderate wing of the GOP that felt Reagan had gone too far in his budgetary policies that were busting the deficit,” Julian Zelizer, an expert on American political history and professor at Princeton University, wrote in an email. “In this case, the criticism [Baker had made of Reagan’s policies] was in some ways a positive for his later appointment as chief of staff since it signaled that Reagan had moderated his views by bringing in someone who held different perspectives into his inner circle.”
Another analogy is Erskine Bowles, whom Bill Clinton tapped as chief of staff in 1997 during his period of “triangulation,” after the Democrats had suffered their massive defeat in the 1994 midterms, similar to what they endured this past November. Bowles brought many of the same qualities to the job that Daley will. “Clinton was turning to someone who was corporate, pragmatic, centrist—to signal his move to the center, and actually get there effectively,” says Gil Troy, an expert on the American presidency who teaches history at McGill University.
Of course, President Obama emphasized Daley’s experience rather than ideological convictions in announcing his appointment. In that light, the historical analogy is Ronald Reagan’s choice of James Baker as his first chief of staff in 1981. Baker had worked for President Gerald Ford in his bitter primary battle against Reagan in 1976 and had managed the campaign of Reagan’s primary rival, George H.W. Bush, in 1980. Baker could be said to come from the mainstream establishment wing of the party relative to Reagan’s conservative insurgency. But Reagan was not perceived as choosing Baker to signal an ideological shift, but just to take advantage of his managerial skills and political savvy. To the extent that President Obama’s perpetually grumpy liberal base perceives Daley’s appointment as fitting that mold, rather than as a directional pivot, it may dampen their criticism. Liberal standard-bearer Howard Dean, for example, praised Daley even while acknowledging their ideological differences.
While the progressive grassroots organization MoveOn.org has criticized the selection of Daley, liberal backlash has so far not been as dramatic as one might expect. Robert Kuttner, a fellow at Demos, a liberal think tank, and coeditor of The American Prospect magazine, who has frequently criticized the administration from the left, suggests that Obama may get a partial pass simply because liberals want to pick their battles. “I suspect that progressives are saving their fire for issues where they think they can actually have some influence, such as pressing Obama not to save on needlessly cutting Social Security benefits,” he told NEWSWEEK.
It is also possible that Daley’s selection will be packaged with choices that mollify liberals, since Larry Summers, another Wall Street–friendly centrist, just left his role as head of the National Economic Council. “Maybe appointing Daley frees up Larry Summers’s job for someone not Wall Street–connected, like Gene Sperling,” suggests Stephen Hess, a senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution who served in the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. (Sperling, the leading candidate for NEC chair, actually did some consulting for Goldman Sachs, but he is considered more liberal than Summers and most other potential replacements.)
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs tried to split the difference between highlighting and downplaying an ideological shift by telling NBC’s Chuck Todd on Thursday morning that Daley would be “new blood” and a “new voice.”
Of course, to Obama’s critics on the left and fans in the center, he has always been a cautious moderate anyway. “Daley is a Democratic centrist who believes that the center is where his party can thrive and win,” says Chester Pach, a history professor at Ohio University who has written histories of the Nixon, Reagan, and Lyndon Johnson presidencies. “It seems as if Obama has similar views. Maybe he’s come to that conclusion only since Nov. 2.”