New Obama, new team, same old problems

(Reuters)

Retooling for a re-election run, President Barack Obama is shaking up his senior leadership team to deal with the new realities of his term: The era of big legislation is over, a massive campaign effort needs energy and people, and the White House is taking a toll on those who run it.

Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, is likely to leave that job, and his interim chief of staff, Pete Rouse, may go, too. Those departures would significantly alter the management of the White House and the way it explains itself to the world.

In the coming days and weeks, Obama is also expected to have a new chief economic adviser, a new senior political counselor, and two new deputy chiefs of staff.

Collectively, the moves reflect that change is coming to the White House in ways that will alter the dynamic of the place — and, in turn, will influence the agenda affecting the nation. The vice president’s office is in for its own new leadership, with its chief of staff, Ron Klain, leaving to run an investment company.

People outside of Washington politics may not recognize the names of the players. How Obama is rebooting his operation is the broader story, and the aides guiding him are a central part of it.

The White House goal is to become more efficient and less insular, to realign itself for divided government, to find fresh voices and to get Obama re-elected. A major emphasis will be to ensure that the campaign works in tandem with the White House, with Obama loyalists spread across the parallel operations or helping from outside both of them.

“To a certain degree, your team is your team,” Gibbs said. “They may all just work in different places.”

Among the expected changes:

_William Daley is under serious consideration to replace Rouse as chief of staff, which is considered the most important gatekeeping job in American politics. Daley, a banking executive and former Cabinet secretary under President Bill Clinton, is said to want the job. Rouse, a camera-shy adviser to Obama who has served smoothly as interim chief of staff, had never wanted to do it for long. If Rouse decides to leave, Daley will likely come aboard. No other scenarios are being strongly considered. Obama and Rouse are expected to decide shortly.

_Gibbs, the most visible spokesman for the president, is likely to leave the briefing room podium. It is unclear whether he would stay at the White House or leave for private sector work, but either way, he will remain a presidential adviser. Gibbs has been at Obama’s side since 2004 and has been expected to seek a change from the grueling job.

_Gene Sperling, a Treasury official and deficit hawk with ties to Wall Street and the Clinton administration, is considered most likely to become Obama’s chief economic adviser. That announcement could come as soon as Friday. Sperling would replace Lawrence Summers as director of the National Economic Council. The job becomes even more important considering that no task is more vital to Obama, both for the country’s well-being and his own political fortunes, than boosting job growth in a time of high unemployment.

_Jim Messina, the deputy chief of staff who juggles operations, politics and legislative roles, is expected to leave to run Obama’s re-election bid out of Chicago. He will likely be replaced by Alyssa Mastromonaco, whose portfolio would center on overseeing the operational aspects of the White House, including staffing and budgeting. Mona Sutphen, Obama’s deputy chief of staff for policy, is also expected to leave her post.

_David Axelrod, one of Obama’s most trusted advisers and strategists, is leaving the White House after the State of the Union speech in January. He plans to recharge at home in Chicago and play a significant role in Obama’s re-election bid. David Plouffe, Obama’s presidential campaign manager and a counselor to Obama over the last two years from outside the building, is expected to join the White House as early as next week as a top adviser.

For all the insider intrigue that surrounds who is coming and going, the overlooked element is why.

One core factor shaping Obama’s thinking is the new dynamic in Washington. Republicans have won control of the House and eroded the Democratic majority in the Senate, which fundamentally changes the White House agenda.

Obama’s chief of staff must reorient his legislative and legal departments to deal with a Republican-led House. The White House will be on the defensive much more than the offensive, trying to protect and enforce the huge health care and Wall Street reform laws of the last year, and getting more organized to deal with aggressive Republican oversight.

For all of Obama’s intentions to swing big on areas like immigration reform, aides realistically expect a greater focus on implementation and on trying to work with Republicans on cutting the deficit.

If he were to place figures such as Daley and Sperling steps away from the Oval Office, Obama would be relying on veterans of the Clinton administration. With Republicans clamoring for fiscal restraint and more jobs, Daley and Sperling would be a not-so-subtle nod to a period when budgets were balanced, the economy was humming and the man in the White House was a Democrat.

“It was a very sweet period of time when everything seemed to conspire for a balanced budget,” said John Duncan, a lobbyist and a senior Treasury official in the Bush administration. “The point is that Obama could be reaching out to bring in that experienced Clinton machinery to gear up.”

Another issue at play is fatigue. People like Axelrod and Gibbs who have been with Obama from the start are ready for a break. So are others in a White House that has kept a crushing schedule. Some senior staff members are eager for fewer hours, more family time and a bigger private-sector salary. Staff members are being asked to either leave shortly or stay for the remaining two years of the term.

The reorganization, led by Rouse, also reflects the first major chance for the Obama White House to review how it works. It is expected to include structural and portfolio changes, and it may be done in a way that addresses Obama’s goals of better communicating with the American people.

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Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2011Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press

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