New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 4, 2011
WASHINGTON » When Rahm Emanuel was White House chief of staff, the decision about what President Barack Obama would say in the short address he delivers via radio and the Internet each Saturday changed so often that speechwriters would wait until Friday to write.
But since William M. Daley took over two months ago and David Plouffe succeeded David Axelrod as communications chief, the decision is made early — and it sticks.
The new team Obama has assembled to run the White House is just starting to make its mark. But together Daley and Plouffe are bringing a new order and a different management style for different times, say people within the West Wing and others who deal with them. The White House is more disciplined and less personality driven, more focused on long-term strategic goals and less consumed by the daily messaging skirmishes with Republicans — even when that means absorbing hits and pulling punches for now.
Unlike Emanuel, the idea-a-minute dynamo who would dart from floor to floor trying to control matters mundane and major, Daley, a seasoned former executive and commerce secretary in the Clinton administration, has streamlined the operation and is more likely to keep to his office, door closed, and to delegate to subordinates. The big matters, however, demand his full attention. On Wednesday, Obama directed Daley to help negotiate a deal on spending cuts with Republicans on Capitol Hill.
"Rahm very much needed to do it all," Daley told a group of reporters last month. "And I don't have that need."
Plouffe likewise is less available to reporters and party officials and keeps his office television turned off — to tune out the daily distractions of cable TV's political play by play. Where Axelrod was an unabashedly sentimental true believer in the Obama brand, Plouffe, who managed Obama's 2008 campaign, is a stoic, by-the-numbers master of organization.
Daley and Plouffe declined to be interviewed on the record, in contrast to their accessible and oft-profiled predecessors. White House aides and outsiders who work with them asked not to be quoted by name in discussing how the new team is affecting the administration's inner workings. And most said they did not want to imply criticism of Emanuel or Axelrod; the White House makeover, they emphasized, reflects a response to factors beyond personalities.
With two years' experience, Obama and his aides had ideas for different ways to do things. The president's agenda is smaller; initially, his need to fulfill ambitious campaign promises and respond to the economic crisis demanded the tactical and legislative savvy that Emanuel had as a former member of Congress and senior adviser in the Clinton White House.
And not least, Obama faces a new power dynamic: Instead of leading an all-Democratic government, he heads a divided one in which neither he nor the Republican majority in the House can accomplish much without compromise.
"Times are different," Daley said last month in the roundtable with reporters, hosted by Bloomberg News.
Nonetheless, staff members describe a happier workplace with clearer lines of authority and less fear of being chided by the often brusque Emanuel. Responsibility for communications and messaging has been consolidated. Cabinet members often overlooked in the past say they are more in the loop. With Daley taking the lead, there is more outreach to Republicans and business groups.
And, the overhaul of the West Wing continues. On Wednesday administration officials said they were doing away with the White House health care office and the post of coordinator for energy and climate change policy — the energy czar post that had been held by Carol M. Browner until her recent resignation — with responsibility for those issues now going to the Domestic Policy Council.
Yet aides also say some of the energy and dynamism departed with Emanuel, and much of the idealistic passion of the 2008 campaign left with Axelrod and some other Obama veterans, including Robert Gibbs, who was replaced by Jay Carney, formerly the spokesman for Vice President Joe Biden and before that a reporter for Time.
Nowhere have the changes been more evident than in the administration's early actions in what is likely to be a long-running, contentious and politically defining debate over the chronically imbalanced federal budget.
The strategic shift is clear from the design of Obama's own budget — which critics slammed for not going nearly far enough to shrink projected future deficits, but which the administration intended as an opening bid to draw Republicans eventually into negotiations — to the White House's muted reaction to House Republicans' proposals for the deepest domestic spending cuts in memory.
White House officials say the goal is winning the year — by bagging a budget deal or the credit for trying — not each day's news cycle. On two successive weekends, for example, the White House passed up chances to score points against House Republicans.
Last Saturday, Daley addressed Democratic governors meeting in Washington and did not even utter the word "Republican," let alone throw partisan red meat by lambasting House Republicans' proposed cuts in education, health services, border control and other programs important to financially struggling states — a purposeful omission, officials said.
Similarly, a week earlier when the House before dawn had approved those cuts by a party-line vote, the White House remained silent though many of Obama's priorities would be slashed.
Frustrated Democratic lawmakers and interest groups have been railing to White House aides that Obama is forfeiting opportunities to draw the public's attention to what the Republicans' cuts would mean for programs popular with most voters, including the coveted independents. The aides respond that the time will come for Obama to join the attack, should Republicans press their agenda and refuse to compromise.
"One of the lessons of the last two years is that if the president weighs in all the time, it's less impactful," Dan Pfeiffer, who remains as the communications director. "But if he weighs in at a moment of his choosing when the public is paying attention, it will be more influential."
Similarly, the White House mostly has sought to stay out of the fray in Madison, Wis., and other state capitals where Republican governors are battling public employee unions and Democratic lawmakers over collective bargaining rights. When West Wing officials discovered that the Democratic National Committee had mobilized Obama's national network to support the protests, they angrily reined in the staff at the party headquarters.
Administration officials said they saw such events beyond Washington as distractions from the optimistic "win the future" message Obama introduced with his State of the Union address, exhorting the country to increase spending for some programs even as it cuts others so that America can "out-innovate and out-educate" its global rivals.
Daley and Plouffe personally illustrated the administration's fealty to that message on Tuesday. Daley, as usual, spoke to the business audience, addressing via videoconference a Florida meeting of the board of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Plouffe met with the executive council of the AFL-CIO.
The events were unadvertised by the White House and closed to the media. But a White House official said the two men's message was the same: Win the future.