The Daley News

What the press is saying about the new COS pick

Yesterday President Obama held a press conference to announce that William Daley—the former commerce secretary who went on to a career at JP Morgan Chase—would be his new White House chief of staff. Politicos watching the White House reshuffle were quick with their reads. Some made the obvious argument that Obama was appealing to business with the move, steering rightward; others countered that it was an unnecessary admission that the administration was previously off track.

For a Daley primer, The New York Times’s Eric Lipton has a nice piece on today’s front page describing the new COS’s business CV. The report, titled “Business Background Defines Chief of Staff,” details Daley’s hiring at Chase, as well as his connections to Boeing and Abbot Labs, and touches on some of the arguments doing the rounds among the pundits today. Lipton leads with what appears to be a settling consensus—that this move was made to appease big business.

Mr. Daley’s recruitment to Pennsylvania Avenue from the corporate boardroom is seen as a smart step by some in Washington, who argue that Mr. Obama has long needed a White House confidant who has the ear of the business community and a record of bipartisanship that might help the president negotiate with Republicans in Congress.

“I think it’s a very, very strong choice,” said Thomas J. Donohue, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been a harsh critic of the Obama administration and provided financial support that helped Republicans take control of the House in the November elections. “Daley is a business person who understands politics.”

Lipton did some interesting digging—Daley will drop from a salary of $3-5 million to $170,000 (poor diddums)—and outlines the potential conflicts of interest his business background could bring about.

Critics of Mr. Daley’s appointment said his corporate work would cause problems. They argue that he will have to recuse himself from matters relating to Chase, Abbott and Boeing or bow out of discussions involving financial regulations, health care and major Defense Department acquisitions, like the contract for a giant Air Force refueling tanker for which Boeing is competing.

“These are all issues that come across the chief of staff’s desk,” said James A. Thurber, an American University professor and specialist on ethics and lobbying in Washington. “Is he going to stand outside of the flow as each of them heads to the president? I don’t see that, and if he doesn’t, there will the perception, and maybe the reality, of a conflict of interest.”

While some are reporting that the president and his new COS are not particularly close—at least, not as close as Obama was to Emanuel—Marc Ambinder reports that their relationship is more involved than it first appears.

The consummation of a fairly short courtship belies the deeper relationship Obama has had with Daley, one that stretches back several years to Obama’s first run for Senate, when Daley was a supporter, and then, during the early part of his presidential bid, when Obama relied on Daley as a chief conduit to Midwestern Democratic fundraisers and donors, as well as for advice about hiring campaign staff. The two have remained in touch infrequently, although Daley was regularly in touch with the numerous other White House officials he knew closely, from then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to senior advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett.

So, what about ideology? And what does this mean for the next stage of the White House?

As many are pointing out, the hire fits a pattern emerging in the reshuffle: the president is dipping into the past for experience, and drawing it mostly from Clinton White House vets. Ezra Klein summarized the appointments in a post from yesterday and noted how they have run against the expectations of some.

Obama’s personnel decisions have shown a strong preference for prior government experience. William Daley, who was named chief of staff earlier today, is a former Secretary of Commerce. Jack Lew, who replaced Peter Orszag as head of the Office of Management and Budget, held the same position under President Clinton. Robert Gates, who leads the Defense Department, was a holdover from George W. Bush. Larry Summers, who Sperling is replacing, was Treasury Secretary under Clinton. And the list goes on. Expectations that Obama would begin to turn to people whose primary experience was outside government have not, thus far, been borne out in his staff shakeup.

Daley’s hiring and the pattern of White House hires into which it fits has many suggesting the president is tracking rightward; he has taken the message of the election and decided to play nice with his political rivals and with big business. Ambinder is quick to point out that Daley is as unfriendly with the left as many are claiming.

Daley is not a liberal. He joined the board of Third Way, a think tank staffed by ex-Clintonites, last year, saying at the time that “advancing moderate ideas, challenging orthodoxies, and building a big tent political movement that can attract an enduring majority. Their views are right for both campaigning and governing: pro-market, strong on security, and seeking common ground on culture issues.”

The left’s agenda, he said, “has not won the support of a majority of Americans — and, based on that recognition, we must steer a more moderate course.”

And the Wall Street Journal’s Elizabeth Williamson’s report on the appointment focuses almost solely on the move as an olive branch to business. How’s this lede?

President Barack Obama put into overdrive Thursday his fledgling efforts to call a truce with American business.

Citing the turning point in this “fledgling effort” as the re-ignition of efforts to move ahead on the South-Korea free-trade agreement, Williamson explains why Obama needed to make a hire like Daley.

Mr. Obama has compelling reasons to repair relations with corporate America. Unemployment remains stubbornly high. There’s little likelihood of significant new stimulus spending from Congress or big new moves by the Federal Reserve to pump money into the economy.

That means the key to economic growth—and Mr. Obama’s re-election prospects—could lie in corporate treasuries. U.S. non-financial businesses are sitting on nearly $2 trillion in cash and liquid assets, the most since World War II, and Mr. Obama wants them to use it to create more U.S. jobs.

Interestingly, Matt Bai at the Times bucks the beltway wisdom by arguing that there isn’t much to be read into the new appointments, at least as far as changes go. Contrary to those who argue the president is moving away from the left, Bai argues in today’s paper that Daley’s installation is an ideological continuation.

Mr. Daley’s politics are essentially indistinguishable from those of the man he replaces, his fellow Chicagoan and protégé Rahm Emanuel (who, like Mr. Daley, got rich working for an investment bank). Both men are said to be pragmatists who care less about political theory than about getting things done, and progressives were never any happier with Mr. Emanuel than they are with the choice of his successor.

…Similarly, Mr. Sperling, who worked for Goldman Sachs before joining the Obama administration, may fairly be called a centrist thinker, but he’s certainly no more of a centrist than his immediate predecessor, Lawrence H. Summers, another veteran of the Clinton administration who also spent a profitable interlude on Wall Street.

In other words, if anything, this week’s appointments would seem to represent a continuation of the ideological course Mr. Obama has been following since before he took the oath of office, rather than any substantive shift in his worldview.

But there is one change Bai detects: the president has hired a new staff less populated by politicians and those who’ve worked inside congress and more geared towards campaigning.

Now Mr. Obama seems inclined to turn his attention outward, toward the rest of the country. Mr. Daley might not know his way around all the labyrinthine passages of the Capitol, but he brings a campaign mind-set to the administration. He directed the successful White House effort to win approval for the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and later ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign, fighting to the last hanging chad.

Klein, for his part, understands the Daley pick—the president is going for a strong résumé, someone who has done a similar job well before. But he questions whether choosing Daley and Sperling sends the best message. Rather than a campaign boon, they may prove a hindrance.

Daley, of course, spent much of the last decade as an executive at J.P. Morgan Chase. Sperling, for his part, received more than $800,000 from Goldman Sachs in return for helping them run an international charitable project aimed at helping women in developing countries run their own businesses. He also made hundreds of thousands of dollars giving speeches to other firms on Wall Street. Both picks have aroused ire among those who think the Obama administration is to close to the banks.

Finally, Greg Sargent at The Washington Post’s The Plum Line blog also focuses on the messaging aspect of Daley’s appointment, arguing that the problem with it is that it undermines much of what the president has achieved and argued for in his first two years. After first praising exactly those achievements, Sargent writes that hiring Daley—who has criticized things like the push for health care reform—is capitulating to unreasonable critics.

Republicans and conservatives have uniformly condemned the Obama administration as in the grip of unrepentant leftism run amok. Yet what’s actually happened is that in so doing, Republicans have moved to the right, and we’ve all agreed to move what we arbitrarily call the “center” to the right in order to accomodate this.

The pick of Daley, however, will reinforce the conventional narrative that Obama has recognized the error of his ultraliberal ways and has picked a “seasoned Beltway hand” to steer the adminstration back to the center. Obviously this is only one of many things to consider about the Daley pick, and there may be many other good reasons to pick him that outweigh this problem.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor. Tags: , , , ,