Michael Gerson

But precisely because Daley is not an ideologue, his appointment carries some ideological consequences. He is not that pinstriped corporate conservative some progressive critics have depicted. Daley was involved, in one way or another, in nearly every Democratic presidential campaign since Jimmy Carter's. But he clearly doesn't view Republicans as another species. When appointed by President Clinton as commerce secretary, none other than Donald Rumsfeld spoke favorably at Daley's confirmation hearing. Daley was mildly but publicly critical of Obama's health care reform strategy. He argued last year: "We've really got to listen carefully to the public. Voters are not re-embracing conservative ideology. But we must acknowledge that the left's agenda has not won the support of a majority of Americans -- and, based on that recognition, we must steer a more moderate course."

Obama has put into place a staff structure that would allow for a shift toward the center-left. The hard left thinks this happened years ago -- but it is only true when measured against its own uncompromising ideals. Daley's political analysis is more reliable. Obama's political objectives leading up to the 2012 election are the same as most presidents. He needs to do things that please his political base without alienating independents. And he needs to do things that regain the support of independents without dispiriting his political base. This is always a walk on a greased tightrope. But the strategy was effectively previewed during the lame-duck session of Congress. The repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" spoke to Obama's base without alienating the middle (a symbol of how mainstream the gay rights movement has become). The pro-growth tax deal with Republicans, aimed at independents, caused liberal growling but little open revolt. It is the model for a political comeback.

That comeback is difficult, but not close to impossible. The president's personal standing has remained high even during large political setbacks. And he can probably count on some Republican help. Each of the last three presidents has benefited from the nasty overreach of his opponents.

Pursuing a successful comeback strategy ultimately depends on the president and his policy decisions, not on the composition of his staff. But Obama's staff changes are gaining the administration a second look -- which is deserved.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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