The resignation of William M. Daley as President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff brings to mind the words of David Wilhelm when he left his post as chairman of the Democratic National Committee in 1994: “I’m going back to Chicago where they stab you in the front.”
Obama was reportedly stunned that Daley quit after only a year in the post, but he shouldn’t have been. The affable Chicago banker had already experienced Washington’s classic death of a thousand cuts.
Some background: The youngest and smartest son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley was never part of the Obama inner circle. After I broke the story in late 2006 that Daley would offer an early and important endorsement of the freshman Illinois senator, a Chicago source informed me that Daley had no particular love for Obama. He backed Obama over Hillary Clinton in part to stay on the right side of Chicago’s blacks in anticipation of a now-abandoned plan to run for governor of Illinois.
In the summer of 2007, when Obama trailed Clinton by more than 20 points in most polls, Daley, by then co-chairman of the Obama campaign, essentially gave up on his candidate, telling friends that Obama had impressed everyone with his fundraising and set himself up nicely for the future but wasn’t going to make it in 2008. Obama loyalists, remembering that Daley had stopped fighting for Al Gore in the 2000 election aftermath against George W. Bush and Jim Baker when he was Gore’s campaign chairman, took note. There was no serious effort to bring him into the Obama administration in 2009.
When Rahm Emanuel left as White House chief of staff in the fall of 2010 to run for mayor of Chicago, he pushed the president hard to hire Daley as his replacement. Emanuel argued that his friend and fellow Chicagoan would help repair the White House’s relationship with the business community (a task Emanuel didn’t think Valerie Jarrett was handling well enough) and was the best man for Job One — getting Obama re-elected.
Before Obama finally settled on Daley, senior adviser Pete Rouse served as interim chief of staff for a few months. Rouse, who has enjoyed Obama’s confidence since he served as his chief of staff in the Senate, is unassuming, unambitious and beloved within the White House. He was, and remains, the man to see on all personnel matters, which meant Daley had little ability to hire or fire. Even before Rouse’s duties were formally expanded (and Daley’s curtailed) late last year, his close relationship with the president and the White House staff was a source of frustration to Daley.
It was hard for Daley to relish being in charge when the president’s three closest aides — Rouse, Jarrett and David Plouffe (Obama’s 2008 campaign manager) — were close to free agents.
Morale under Daley sunk, as the White House became less freewheeling and more corporate and secretive. Two upper echelon aides who had once chafed under Emanuel told me they were nostalgic for him because at least he could make things happen in the government.
All of this — plus Daley’s genuine desire to spend more time with his new wife — could have been survived were it not for unhappiness with the chief of staff on Capitol Hill.
It had been more than a decade since Daley was in the Washington scrum as President Bill Clinton’s commerce secretary, and his skills were rusty. The failure to complete a “grand bargain” on the deficit with Republicans wasn’t his fault, but didn’t reflect well on him either. His good working relationship with House Speaker John Boehner yielded nothing.
Democratic lawmakers, already annoyed at not getting more face time with the president, whispered loudly that the Obama White House was much worse than the Clinton White House at taking care of their needs. They laid this at Daley’s feet.
Soon articles appeared that reflected grumbling from unnamed sources in Congress, some of them on the staff of the Democratic leadership. But the most damaging story came from Daley’s own mouth. I’d argue that the effective end of his tenure came on Oct. 28, 2011, when Politico published an interview with him by Roger Simon, a former Chicago Sun-Times columnist who had known him for decades.
After telling Simon that the first three years of the Obama presidency had been “ungodly” and “brutal,” he said something that was simultaneously true and unforgivable within the Democratic Party:
“On the domestic side, both Democrats and Republicans have really made it very difficult for the president to be anything like a chief executive.”
In Washington, careers can end over nothing more than a sentence fragment. By saying “both Democrats and Republicans,” Daley spread the blame for obstructionism, enraging congressional Democrats, who in a couple of cases had to be soothed by the president himself. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was particularly angry. Jack Lew, the budget director, will succeed Daley and has much better relations with Democrats on the Hill and with the White House staff.
Still, Obama wasn’t lying when he said that he values the counsel of Daley, who deserves some credit for helping him survive the roughest year of his presidency so far. But Daley’s tenure and retreat may best be remembered as the moment when Washington truly displaced Chicago as the most brutal political town in the country.
(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist and the author of “The Promise: President Obama, Year One.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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