But as high as Obama’s spirits were, he still faced a series of fateful choices, especially concerning the makeup of his team. For the first two years, the White House essentially had been a closed loop. The questions facing him now were whether to stay that course or risk his own comfort for the sake of being more effective. The first and foremost place where the answers would become apparent was in his choice of chief of staff.
Bill Daley—the brother of the current Chicago mayor and the seventh child of the more storied one, a secretary of Commerce under Clinton, a chairman of Al Gore’s presidential campaign, and now a banker at JPMorgan Chase—was by no means an Obama insider, but he wasn’t exactly an outsider, either. Daley had been close to Axelrod for more than 30 years. And though he had known Obama mainly socially in the first half of the decade, Daley was the first person Obama consulted when, on the day after the midterms in 2006, he began formally deliberating about making a presidential bid. “Yeah, you gotta run,” Daley told Obama. “Why not? What have you got to lose? Can you win? I think you can.” Before Obama even had a chance to ask for his support, Daley guaranteed it: “If you’re running, I’m with you.”
Daley’s pledge put him in an awkward position with Hillary Clinton, who expected him to be with her. But Daley delivered the news to his former boss’s wife, and from then on was an adjunct to Team Obama. When the candidate’s donors turned restive at the sight of Obama lagging in late 2007, Daley was dispatched to soothe them. When people questioned Obama’s relentless focus on Iowa, he counseled Plouffe, “This is your strategy, and it may not work, but you have to stick with it.” When Rouse arranged a secret meeting with a group of Democratic heavies in the fall of 2008 to discuss Obama’s transition to governing, Daley was in the room. And when the transition unfurled, Daley was one of its two co-chairs on economic policy.
Yet for all this, Daley was not the first person considered to replace Emanuel. The outgoing chief of staff himself initially pushed hard for Ron Klain, Joe Biden’s chief, to succeed him, but the idea faced internal opposition. Tom Donilon, then deputy national-security adviser, was in the mix, until Obama decided to name him Jim Jones’s heir. Daschle, Panetta, and Podesta were all floated, but Obama preferred to confer the interim title on Rouse—telling him that, in the end, he might ask Rouse to accept an upgrade.
After the midterms, however, Emanuel—who remains in constant e-mail contact with Obama—began pressing the case for Daley. (Bill and his brother have been among Emanuel’s biggest supporters since he first ran for Congress.) So did Axelrod. “Here you have a guy who’s a grand master in politics, understands how to move things in this town, but isn’t of this town,” Axelrod explains. “Someone who has run major corporations and gets the whole economic thing … and he ran a presidential campaign.”
In mid-December, Daley flew to Washington and met with Obama in the Oval Office. A few nights later, Obama and Rouse had dinner together in the White House residence and discussed the respective pros and cons of picking Daley or sticking with Rouse. Although Rouse at first had been a reluctant conscript, his wariness about keeping the job was ebbing. In his favor was his trust level with Obama, no easy thing to earn, along with the depth of his relationships in the building and his pacifying influence on the place. And his management of the lame-duck session had yielded a smashing success.
But Rouse could see a stronger case for Daley: that he could help deal with all three baskets of problems he had identified. That Daley wasn’t an intimate of Obama’s, along with his vast range of contacts in politics and business, would address the issue of insularity. He had a terrific capacity for strategic, long-range focus. And he would be a powerful outside spokesman, a face of the administration on the Sunday shows—a role Rouse would only have embraced were the alternative being tied up and dragged naked down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Obama returned from Hawaii and met again with Daley on January 5. The choice was now upon him. By a long shot, the easier and safer path would have been to stick with Rouse, a beloved figure in the White House whose permanent elevation would have been greeted by a standing ovation in the West Wing. But Obama had come to believe that, for all of Rouse’s many and evident virtues, he needed new blood and new thinking, even if—especially if—it pushed him outside of his narrow comfort zone.