Bill Daley and post-partisanship

Jonathan Chait has a piece at looking at how White House Chief of Staff is being forced into a diminished role following less than a year on the job. Chait theorizes that this is because Daley pushed a governing framework that is unpopular.

the interesting legacy of Daley’s tenure is not his mechanical performance. It’s that he conducted an experiment based on the Washington elite view of the Obama presidency. That view, shared by business leaders, centrist pundits, and other elites, holds that Obama’s main problem has been excessive partisanship, liberalism in general, and hostility to business in particular. In December, 2009, Bill Daley wrote a Washington Post op-ed endorsing precisely this analysis. After the midterm elections, Obama – pelted by Daley-esque complaints – appointed Daley chief of staff. “His moderate views and Wall Street credentials make him an unexpected choice for a president who has railed against corporate irresponsibility,” reported the Post. Republicans like Mitch McConnell, Karl Rove, and FedEx CEO Fred Smithraved.

Daley, pursuing his theory, heavily courted business leaders. He made long-term deficit reduction a top priority, and spent hours with Republican leaders, meeting them three-quarters of the way in hopes of securing a deal that would demonstrate his centrism and bipartisanship. The effort failed completely.

The effort failed because Daley’s analysis — which is also the analysis of David Brooks and Michael Bloomberg — was fatally incorrect. Americans were not itching for Obama to make peace with corporate America. Americans are in an angry, populist mood — distrustful of government, but even more distrustful of business.

Chait goes on to provide numerical evidence that Americans are not looking for pro-business governance right now, nor are they looking for cooperation with the GOP. As a result, Chait says, Daley is being pushed out, his ideas disproved by the results.

This all may be true. Daley’s arrival in the White House certainly increased the Obama administration’s ties to Wall Street and major corporations. He also seems to have presided over a period of concerted attempts to work hand in hand with the Republican Congress. But it’s not as if the White House wasn’t already heavily partnered with big business and Wall Street. It’s not as if the Obama administration hadn’t already spent the better part of two years trying to pass bipartisan legislation, despite having congressional majorities that did not require this.

Moreover, while a Chief of Staff has serious influence over the course an administration’s political and policy actions, those decisions only move forward if the President is on board for those decisions. Daley’s crime doesn’t seem to be wrong in the eyes of the President about reaching out and doing work alongside business and Republicans. It’s that he actually failed to do it well. Throw in the mix that Daley had genuinely bad relationships with Democrats on the Hill and a penchant to give up too much information to both reporters and Republicans, and it seems clear that he just wasn’t an effective operative.

If Chait is right, we’ll see the President and his re-election campaign push for aggressive, populist, anti-Wall Street messaging. But I think it’s more likely that we see from Obama what we saw in 2008 and what we’ve seen almost without interruption since he assumed office: a desire to be a post-partisan president, to cast a pox on both Republican and Democratic houses for failure to get things done, and a refusal to criticize the Masters of the Universe who wrecked our economy and are still stealing peoples’ homes. In such a scenario it will become clear that Daley’s role wasn’t diminished because his worldview was proven incorrect and therefore ineffective; it will instead be clear that Daley lost stature because he didn’t get things done, period.

Chait is right that “Americans are in an angry, populist mood — distrustful of government, but even more distrustful of business.” But I don’t think that fact is going to dissuade President Obama and his staff that being soft on business, covering up Wall Street crime, and consistently producing Republican solutions to the problems we face is an incorrect course for the administration to be on.

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