WASHINGTON -- Members of the White House staff are extensions of a president's will, and also shape that will over time. They can either amplify or repress his enthusiasms; feed his better nature or his resentments. They are both instrument and influence.
President Obama's staff changes in the last few months are not cosmetic. His chief of staff's office and economic team are nearly new; only his defense and foreign-policy lineups are substantially intact. Staff shakeups allow for a fresh start. They are also an implicit concession that the previous system didn't function as intended.
That system was top-heavy with presidential advisers who had a personal history with Obama, direct access and a strong, political bent -- Valerie Jarrett, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs. Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, while possessing a vivid personality, was not definitively in charge. It was as though Obama employed four Karl Roves. One is valuable -- and enough.
The main contrast between the previous order and the tenure of William Daley will be institutional, not ideological. Daley's gravitas and experience will clarify the organizational chart. He should command respect among the Cabinet and staff. At the same time, since he is neither an ideologue nor a self-promoter, the Cabinet and staff won't view him as a competitor. He is well positioned to promote timely decision-making and enforce discipline on a chaotic White House process -- the main measures of a White House chief of staff's success.
Daley has a deserved reputation as both a reasonable adult and an effective political operator. His main deputy, David Lane (who, until last week, was a colleague of mine at the ONE Campaign), is skilled at political coalition-building. The new director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jack Lew, is broadly praised for his seriousness. During its first two years, the Obama White House believed it was smarter and more righteous than anyone else in Washington -- an attitude that made followership difficult. The new team has a chance to alter this perception with a quieter professionalism.