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The West Wing, Season II


Before offering the job to Daley, however, Obama—out of respect for his interim chief’s fealty and judgment—gave Rouse effective veto power over the decision. “If Pete had said ‘I want this job’ or ‘I think this is a big mistake,’ the president wouldn’t have done it,” a senior White House official says. But Rouse—as Obama must have intuited he would—professed no qualms. “I’m totally in support of this and comfortable with it,” he told the president.

The next day, when Obama unveiled the move, the reaction was applause from the Establishment and anguished ululating from the left. But both responses were based on misreadings: that the pick was designed to mend fences (or curry favor with) business and Wall Street; that it represented a pivot to the sensible (or mushy) middle.

While it’s true that Daley worked for a bank, led the charge in the passage of NAFTA, and criticized the pursuit of health-care reform, the picture is not that simple. His appointment was endorsed by the likes of Howard Dean, Robert Reich, and Bob Shrum—hardly a pro-triangulation triumvirate. “I just think the world of him,” says Shrum, who worked with Daley on the Gore campaign. “He’s tough-minded and he’s fair-minded. Obviously, he’ll talk to the business community, but I think all this liberal brouhaha is foolish. He’s not gonna change, nor would he want to change, in this role, what Obama intends to do.”

Chris Lehane, another Gore veteran, agrees. “Whichever way this president wants to go, Bill is gonna make sure that it’s done in the most effective way possible,” Lehane says. “The thing about Bill is that he plays to win, and how he plays to win is by getting shit done in a really smart way.”

What Daley’s selection meant most immediately was that another key piece of the personnel puzzle could fall into place: the naming of Gene Sperling the following day as head of the National Economic Council. (With Daley as chief of staff, the main alternative to Sperling, investor Roger Altman, would have been a financier too far.) These announcements alone would have made the first week in January a huge one in terms of the changing face of the White House. But the additions were coupled with subtractions that mean as much or even more.

The day after the Daley announcement, I paid a call on Axelrod in his West Wing office, though the mood of the meeting made it feel more like the departure lounge. I noted that Axelrod, who has lately adopted a diet that involves green vegetables and is working out with Obama’s trainer, was a shadow of the man he had been during the campaign—he looked terrific. But he sounded exhausted, weary in the way of a person who has run a double marathon at a sprinter’s pace and who hasn’t had a decent night of sleep since at least 2004. “It gets to you after a while,” he said. “I thought to myself when I jumped on the plane to come back here this time, ‘Man, if I had another year to go, or even another six months, I’m not sure I could get on this plane.’ ”

Axelrod, in fact, will be vacating the building in the next couple of weeks, as will Gibbs. This turn of events took Washington somewhat by surprise. For the past two years, Axelrod had been telling people that he planned to split late this spring. And Gibbs was reported—notably in a profile in the Washington Post this past April—to be pining to step out of the press office and up into a broader role with a grander title.

The news that both are leaving now spurred the political class into a fit of theorizing. Karl Rove opined in The Wall Street Journal that Rouse had “likely told the president he must deny Mr. Gibbs a larger White House policy role and instead ease the acerbic press secretary out.” Much the same sort of speculation—and not only among those with intent as malign as Rove’s—has circulated concerning Axelrod. “I don’t think Obama was especially well served by either of them in the White House,” says an A-list player in a previous Democratic administration. “It’s the same with every president. They come to town and the campaign people are their family, but as they learn that there’s a difference between campaigning and governing, the campaign people get washed out.”

But there may be less here than meets the jaundiced eye when it comes to the Obamans. White House officials point to the arrival of Plouffe as a key driver of Axelrod’s accelerated timetable. “It would be almost impossible to have Axe and Plouffe here at the same time for an extended period,” says a senior aide. “One of everyone’s concerns, Axelrod’s included, going forward is overlapping portfolios, and his and Plouffe’s would have been almost entirely overlapping.”


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