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Facing new politics, Obama is set to shuffle staff

By Jeff Zeleny

New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:04 p.m. HST, Dec 24, 2010



WASHINGTON » President Barack Obama is planning the first major reorganization of his administration, preparing to shuffle several positions in the West Wing as he tries to fortify his political team for the realities of divided government and his own re-election.

The president is studying how to maximize the power of the executive branch, advisers say, seeking insight from veterans of previous administrations and fresh advice from business leaders to guide the second half of his term.

He is reviewing the restructuring plan during the holidays and intends to make the first announcements in the opening days of January.

A reshaping of the economic team, beginning by naming a new director of the National Economic Council, is among the most urgent priorities of the new year. Gene Sperling, a counselor to the Treasury secretary who held the position in the Clinton administration, is among the final contenders to succeed Lawrence H. Summers in the job, along with Roger C. Altman, a Wall Street investment banker who also served in the Clinton administration.

When Republicans assume control of the House on Jan. 5, ending four years of a full Democratic majority in Congress, the president's approach to policy and politics is poised to change on several fronts.

The White House is hiring more lawyers to handle oversight investigations from the new Congress, even as the president sets up a re-election headquarters in Chicago and considers ways to streamline operations inside the West Wing.

"You're not going to see wholesale changes, but there will be significant changes. I think that's desirable," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser who is leaving the White House next month. "This is a bubble. It's been an intense couple of years, and there's an advantage to bringing in folks who have a fresh set of senses—smell, touch and feel—about what's going on out there."

The first personnel change inside the White House is the arrival of David Plouffe, who managed Obama's presidential campaign. For the past two years, Plouffe has been one of the president's closest outside confidants, but he is set to replace Axelrod as his chief political adviser with a broad portfolio.

Jim Messina, a deputy White House chief of staff, will depart early next year to manage Obama's re-election campaign in Chicago. His departure, along with those of others inside the West Wing, has created vacancies among the president's top echelon of advisers that are at the heart of the reorganization plan.

At the final cabinet meeting of the year, on Dec. 8, the president renewed his request that if any members intended to step down, they needed to signal their intentions. White House officials said they believed that Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates is the only cabinet member who definitely plans to leave next year, although one other departure is possible.

There has been far less turnover for the Obama administration than for some of its recent predecessors. But at the midpoint of his term, several aides are considering new opportunities, including the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs. Gibbs will probably either become a senior adviser to the president or work outside the White House, defending Obama on television and beginning to define the field of 2012 Republican presidential candidates. The leading contenders for his job are Jay Carney, a spokesman for Vice President Joe Biden, and Bill Burton, a deputy press secretary.

Two months before the midterm elections, even before it became clear that Democrats would lose their congressional majority, the president ordered a review of how the White House operated and how it could be modernized. The mission of the Reorganization Plan, as it is called at the White House, expanded after the sweeping Republican victory.

Pete Rouse, now the interim White House chief of staff, was already working on the plan in October when Rahm Emanuel stepped down as chief of staff to run for mayor of Chicago. The process has been a highly guarded secret even inside the White House, with Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser; Robert F. Bauer, the general counsel; and Axelrod also providing guidance.

The president was frustrated by the bureaucracy of the administration, aides said, and asked Rouse to recommend ways to improve internal communication and efficiency. Several recommendations were given to the president before he left Washington on Wednesday night to spend Christmas with his family in Hawaii, aides said.

The review has created anxiety in the corridors of the West Wing, where many aides who have spent at least four years working for Obama are uncertain of their next assignments. Some will be dispatched to Chicago, where the re-election effort is scheduled to be well under way by the spring, with the fundraising, political and communications staff among the first to report for duty.

The week after the midterm elections, the president began an extensive series of conversations in the Oval Office about how he could make the best use of the final two years of his first term.

Obama discussed the pitfalls—and opportunities—of divided government with former President Bill Clinton during a long meeting this month. He also has held private discussions with an array of figures, including Leon E. Panetta, the director of the CIA, who served as a chief of staff to Clinton; John D. Podesta, another former Clinton chief of staff; Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader; and Kenneth M. Duberstein, a former chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan.

Obama is reading the biography "President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime," by Lou Cannon, aides said, and recently completed "The Clinton Tapes," by Taylor Branch, who chronicled the 42nd president through a series of private interviews.

Despite all his time studying the Clinton administration, Obama told his aides that he had no intention of following the precise path of Clinton, who after the Democratic midterm election defeats of 1994 ordered a clearing of the decks inside the White House, installed competing teams of advisers and employed a centrist policy of triangulation. In fact, several advisers confirmed, the word "triangulation" has been banned by Obama because he does not believe it accurately describes his approach.

On Wednesday afternoon, even as lawmakers were approving a burst of Obama's legislative priorities in the waning hours of the congressional session, the president and a small circle of advisers convened to sketch out the next two months. Obama intends not only to extend a hand to Republicans but also to begin detaching himself more from Congress and spending more time making his case directly to the American people.

"In a world of divided government, getting things done requires a mix of compromise and confrontation," said Dan Pfeiffer, the White House communications director. "What are the things you can do without Congress? In some cases, that involves executive orders, but it also involves using the bully pulpit of the presidency to make a political argument about the direction of the country."

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