Emanuel's departure unlikely to reset Obama's presidency

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 30, 2010 

WASHINGTON — White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is expected to resign Friday, accelerating a midterm staff exodus that will give President Barack Obama a chance to hit the reset button on his politically beleaguered presidency.

The departure of Emanuel, who will be heralded by Obama personally in a morning ceremony in the White House East Room, is the highest profile of several farewells that have included his top budget adviser, two of his top economic advisers and will soon include his national security adviser.

The turnover comes at a time when Obama suffers from disappointing approval ratings and expects big losses for his Democratic Party in November's elections for control of Congress.

However, don't expect Obama to use a change of staff to signal a change of course as he pivots to the second half of his term and a re-election campaign, perhaps with a Republican Congress breathing down his neck.

"It's unlikely the president is going to change positions," said George Edwards, a scholar of the presidency at Texas A&M University. "And there's very little expectation Barack Obama is going to be very successful in the next Congress. It doesn't matter who's chief of staff."

After all, Obama will remain at the helm. And most of the expected new appointees are already Obama loyalists ensconced in the West Wing or coming from other parts of the administration, such as Deputy Chief of Staff Pete Rouse, who's expected to be named chief of staff, or acting chief, on Friday.

"Pete has been with senator-elect, senator, president-elect, and now President Obama," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said of Rouse. "There is a complete loyalty and trust with somebody like Pete. Pete's strategic sense has played a big part in the direction of virtually every big decision that's made inside of this White House. I think the type of trust that the president and others throughout this administration have in Pete is enormous."

Similarly, when Peter Orszag resigned as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Obama tapped familiar hand Jacob Lew to replace him. Lew was a budget director for former President Bill Clinton.

When Christina Romer stepped down recently as the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Obama turned to Austan Goolsbee, who's advised the president going back to his 2004 Senate campaign in Illinois.

He hasn't yet named a replacement for Lawrence Summers, who's announced he'll leave his post as chair of the National Economic Council by year's end.

National Security Adviser James Jones also has told people he's close to in Washington that he intends to leave by then. Among those most often mentioned as his possible replacement: Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.

Senior adviser David Axelrod also is expected to exit the White House early next year — to run Obama's re-election campaign. He'd remain in Obama's circle, and his role in the West Wing could be taken by Gibbs, or perhaps former campaign manager David Plouffe.

Gibbs said the string of resignations is to be expected nearing the midway point of the term.

"The folks that have worked in here for the last two years have managed to pack four or six or eight or 10 years' worth of work into those two," he said. "People have given of their time and of their lives. They've been away from their loved ones, their families."

As chief of staff, Emanuel is the first aide Obama sees in the morning and the last he sees in the evening. In addition to managing the West Wing staff, the former congressman from Chicago also serves as a top political adviser and legislative strategist. During the long debate over health care, he often used his access to the House of Representatives gym to twist arms.

The job of White House chief of staff has been a highly visible one in the modern era — sometimes to the detriment of the president.

Donald Regan was seen as imperious when he became Ronald Reagan's chief of staff in 1985, and was eventually fired. John Sununu also was criticized as too controlling when he served George H.W. Bush, and for using military jets for personal travel.

Replacing those chiefs helped their presidents. As a rule, however, change in top White House staff makes little difference.

Ronald Reagan had six national security advisers, but didn't change his approach to national security, Edwards noted. Bill Clinton dumped his first chief of staff, Thomas "Mack" McLarty for the widely praised Leon Panetta, who brought much-needed discipline and experienced Washington political judgment to White House operations, yet Clinton remained much the same.

"There may be some nuanced differences in advice in who replaces Axelrod. Changes in tone perhaps," Edwards said. "It doesn't necessarily mean a change of direction."

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