Political news outlets have recently been closely tracking the ins-and-outs (mostly outs) of President Obama’s mid-term staff shuffle. All of those departing seem to have now made their intentions known and, looking ahead, it remains only to be seen who the incoming class will be. Political departures being as they have ever been, the nature of the personnel shake-up, which began with Rahm Emanuel’s departure in early October and has continued into the present with Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ announcement of resignation today, has been duly scrutinized. Most have reasonably deduced the changes to be a product of a very difficult two years in office. Speculations about each departing member’s reasons— with David Axelrod serving as the primary subject under review— have abounded, but answers have remained limited to official statements and brief asides. Now, with the announcement of William Daley’s potential placement as chief of staff— a position which can easily set the tone of an administration’s policies and tactics— we are beginning to see the results of this transition period and what they may forecast for the next two years of Mr. Obama’s presidency.
Although primary focus has thus far been devoted to the unconfidence suggested by the myriad departures, what will be far more telling in terms of the current psychology of the administration are the names selected to serve in the second half of the president’s term. Each official’s departure has, presumably, been separately and individually decided for his own reasons. Going forward, it is the president and his advisors who will stand to measure and reveal to what degree they take the last two years’ hardships as products of their own misjudgments or merely the best possible result of a brutal time in American politics. The degree to which they choose officials in keeping with past rubrics is the degree to which they see their own actions thus far as well-advised. The degree to which they deviate is the degree to which they have come up against the stone wall of their own misgivings and missteps over the past two years and especially in the recent mid-term elections.
At first glance, the speculation over William Daley’s appointment reveals numerous factors at work in Mr. Obama’s decision process, namely his remaining predilection for drawing from the familiar waters of Chicago politics (Daley’s brother Richard is the city’s retiring mayor), his desire to shun accusations of being anti-business and particularly hostile to the finance sector (Daley is currently senior executive at J.P. Morgan Chase), and perhaps a continuation of efforts to remedy his own dire approval ratings with favorable memories of the Clinton administration (under which Daley served as Secretary of Commerce). This last point is particularly in-line with Obama’s enlistment of President Clinton to go on the campaign trail in support of democratic candidates for congressional offices and various controversial policies this past year. Reasons given at the time mentioned the president’s busy schedule, but the “poison” effect he had had on numerous congressional and gubernatorial candidates thus far told a different story.
Though Daley’s appointment is contingent upon the decision of acting-Chief of Staff Pete Rouse, the fact that he appears to be the administration’s first choice is no less revealing. It seems that the president is appealing to the age-old tactics of brand-name party politics and posturing himself so as to invoke memories of the last Democratic administration, and a very popular one at that. The question that this raises, however, is formidable: will this tactic come back to bite him in the next general election? There has been recent speculation by many that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, ever hungry for the oval office, may be willing to challenge Mr. Obama for the nomination if his approval ratings drop too low in the next year. As unlikely as that all sounds, with current ratings rocky at best, the president is taking a risk endorsing the only name that could legitimately attempt such an intra-party coup. Even without such a threat from within, he sets himself up for considerable criticism in the next election, with opponents eager to say that he was forced to rely upon the success of former presidents to enact the fabled “Change” of his campaign slogan.
Reagan said, “Personnel is policy.” It is thus incumbent upon the scrupulous to watch carefully the personnel chosen by the president at this time. The men and women selected to help the president to enforce the laws of the land— the primary role of the executive branch— are often as crucial as any bill or mandate. It is sometimes bewildering to keep track of all of the names and positions, but conscientiousness dictates that we all keep a keen eye on the individuals in high places within the executive, as well as the legislative, branch. The president may have final say, but with over 300 bureaus currently at work within that branch there can be no overstatement of the role played by individual delegates moving between the White House and subordinate offices, each with their own backgrounds and personal agendas. As true now as it ever was, a vigilant populace is a free populace.