President Obama may soon make one of the most fateful personnel decisions of his tenure, naming a new chief of staff whose job will be to help revive a presidency battered by the weak economy and a Republican resurgence.
Rahm Emanuel, who now holds the position, is expected to resign soon to run for mayor of Chicago, giving Obama a chance to reconfigure a White House team that has seen little high-level turnover.
For Obama, the choice comes down to promoting a trusted aide familiar with the rhythms of the White House or, in a bit of a gamble, tapping an outside candidate with the stature and independence to tell the president candidly what’s working and what’s not.
“The candidates that I’ve seen floated are good, decent people, but internal candidates,” said Douglas Schoen, a former pollster for President Clinton, touting the second option. “What the president needs and would benefit most from is someone who has independent credibility and can just walk into the Oval Office and say, ‘No, Mr. President.’ ”
Obama’s choice comes at a perilous moment in his presidency. Schoen just completed a poll of independent voters that showed only 38% approve of Obama’s job performance. When Obama won the 2008 election, he captured 52% of independents. Overall, Obama’s approval rating is below 50%.
Heading into the midterm election, Republicans are expected to eat into the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, if not erase them altogether.
So Obama’s selection will send a strong signal about how he plans to govern in the last half of the term.
Emanuel, a former House member and longtime Democratic operative, was considered well suited to a strategy in which Obama sought to push an ambitious agenda through Congress. Emanuel worked to line up the necessary Democratic votes and then pick off a few Republicans to prevent filibusters in the Senate.
But if Republicans make strong gains in the Nov. 2 election, that strategy won’t work. Obama may need to sidestep Congress and govern more through executive orders, vetoes and use of the megaphone the presidency commands.
That may necessitate a different kind of chief of staff.
“If the president wants a fresh start, then he’s going to have to send some very credible signals that he’s thinking about the next two years differently than the first two years,” said William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former advisor to Clinton. “And a chief of staff who’s a radical departure from the one he has now would be a way of doing that.”
An ideal candidate would be someone “with policy and political experience who is not in the current fray, who’s a grown-up and treats other people respectfully,” Galston added.
Inside the White House, the main candidates include Thomas E. Donilon, the deputy national security advisor; Pete Rouse, a senior advisor who served as chief of staff in Obama’s Senate office; Robert F. Bauer, White House counsel; and Ron Klain, chief of staff to Vice President Joe Biden.
Outside, the list includes Tom Daschle, former Senate Democratic majority leader; Erskine Bowles, a former chief of staff in the Clinton White House and now the co-chairman of Obama’s deficit-reduction commission; and John Podesta, another ex-Clinton chief of staff and now head of the Center for American Progress, a think tank.
Podesta, though, has said he has taken himself out of the running.
Although he is still evaluating whether to jump into the mayor’s race, Emanuel has already said he wants the mayor’s job, and his friends are urging a quick announcement. Candidates face a filing deadline of Nov. 22.
“He has to make his decision soon, get on the ground,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said in a television interview. “You can’t win this from the White House; you have to win it from the streets of Chicago.”
Emanuel’s departure would mean a seismic cultural shift at the White House. He is a major personality in his own right, leading a 7:30 a.m. meeting for senior staff and keeping a brutal pace throughout the week, expressing himself in language sprinkled with profanity.
In a new book about the auto bailout, Steven Rattner, who headed Obama’s auto task force last year, said Emanuel “ruled by a mixture of respect and fear.” He expected “perfection from his subordinates. As a result, there was not a lot of love for Rahm.”
A White House aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “Rahm is Rahm. But his abrasiveness is endearing.”
Within the White House gates, there is huge interest in the post-Emanuel era.
“We haven’t had a major departure like this,” said another White House aide, also speaking on condition of anonymity. “The change in a major office changes the character of the place a little bit.”