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Obama Turns to Experienced Hands as He Remakes Staff

Jeff Zeleny and Jackie Calmes,|The New York Times
Thursday, 6 Jan 2011 | 8:24 AM ET

President Obama closed in Wednesday on a decision to fill two top positions and recharge his administration, stopping just short of naming a new chief of staff and a top economic adviser to guide the White House through a new period of divided government.

President Barack Obama in an Economic Stimulus meeting
CNBC.com
President Barack Obama in an Economic Stimulus meeting

William M. Daley, who was commerce secretary in the Clinton administration, visited the West Wing to meet with the president and other advisers for a final series of discussions about serving as chief of staff. He has told associates he would accept the job if an offer was extended, and officials said Mr. Obama was favoring him.

Gene Sperling, a counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, was expected to be named on Friday as the director of the National Economic Council, the top economic policy job inside the White House. Mr. Sperling also held the position in the Clinton administration.

The moves would signal an effort by the White House to bring on experienced Washington hands with records of bipartisan deal making as it faces the realities of a Republican-controlled House, a slimmer Democratic majority in the Senate and a resurgent grass-roots conservative movement.

The White House also announced Wednesday that Robert Gibbs, the press secretary and a close confidant to Mr. Obama, was stepping down to become an outside political adviser to the president and his re-election campaign.

Mr. Daley, currently a senior executive at JPMorgan Chase, has close ties to business and comes out of the Democratic Party’s centrist movement. Mr. Sperling was among the architects of thetax deal that Mr. Obama reached last monthwith Senate Republicans, and played a big role in the bipartisan deficit-reduction deal President Bill Clinton negotiated in 1997.

The arrival of Mr. Daley at the White House on Wednesday underscored how close the president was to reaching a decision on selecting a chief of staff, the linchpin of a broad reorganization under way in the West Wing.

Mr. Obama had narrowed his choice for chief of staff to Mr. Daley and Pete Rouse, who has been serving in the post on an interim basis since Rahm Emanuel resigned last fall to run for mayor of Chicago. Mr. Rouse, who is said by colleagues not to have wanted the chief of staff job in the first place, drafted the reorganization plan, which ultimately led to the suggestion that Mr. Daley be considered for the post. Should Mr. Daley for some reason not get the job, officials said, Mr. Rouse would stay on.

The president, in a brief telephone interview on Wednesday, said he was eager to put the reorganization into place and make changes after two years on the job. He said he planned to have the personnel realignments finished in the coming days.

“The American people are expecting us to hit the ground running and start working with this new Congress to promote job growth and keep the recovery going,” Mr. Obama said. “We’re not going to be dilly-dallying along when it comes to making sure that we’re executing on behalf of the American people.”

As Mr. Obama enters a new phase of his presidency, there are signs that he intends to operate differently. The White House said the president would speak on Feb. 7 to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a group that spent millions trying to defeat Democratic candidates and the policies of his administration.

While Mr. Daley and Mr. Sperling are perceived as centrists and could leave liberals further concerned about the administration’s commitment to its views, the real evidence of where the president is heading will not come until the State of the Union address later this month and the unveiling of the president’s budget in February.

The first in a series of staff changes began on Wednesday as Mr. Gibbs, the press secretary, announced that he was stepping down. He said he would leave in early February. His successor has not yet been chosen.

The departures of David Axelrod, a senior adviser to the president, and Jim Messina, a deputy chief of staff, both of whom are moving to Chicago to establish the president’s re-election campaign, have been further impetus to the realignment among political and policy advisers alike. Several of the positions are interwoven, which has created an unusual air of uncertainty for a White House that has enjoyed considerable continuity.

“You’ll be seeing announcements in due course,” Mr. Obama said in the interview, in which he praised Mr. Gibbs, who has worked for him since April 2004, well before Mr. Obama’s political star had risen. “Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

While Mr. Obama has worked closely with Mr. Sperling, he is far less familiar with Mr. Daley, even though they are both from Chicago. The men had their first serious conversation in two years last month, associates said, when the president first approached Mr. Daley about the position. He was invited to the White House on Wednesday afternoon to spend more time with Mr. Obama.

The president is scheduled to announce on Friday a new team of economic advisers during a visit to a window manufacturing company in Landover, Md., just outside Washington. Mr. Sperling would replace Lawrence H. Summers, who has returned to Harvard University.

Mr. Sperling, much like Mr. Obama, is a liberal but with a pragmatic bent. Some liberal activists have opposed his becoming the director because of his openness to compromise with Republicans, and because he once was a well-paid consultant to Goldman Sachs, managing a charitable program to teach skills to poor women in Africa and elsewhere.

Mr. Obama initially had expressed a preference for enlisting someone with business experience, as part of his broader outreach to the corporate community, alienated by his policies overhauling the health care and financial regulatory systems. The other leading candidates were Roger C. Altman, an investment banker and former deputy Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, and Richard Levin, an economist and longtime president of Yale University.

Ultimately, however, he decided the nature of the director’s job and the demands of forging fiscal policy at a time of divided government argued for someone of Mr. Sperling’s policy-making experience. As deputy director and then director of the National Economic Council under Mr. Clinton, Mr. Sperling worked on budget, tax and trade policies when Republicans controlled the House and Senate.

Administration officials say Mr. Sperling’s chances for the job were all but sealed last month, when he played a lead role in the tax cuts compromise that Mr. Obama reached with Republicans in Congress’s lame-duck session. Before that, he was an architect of legislation creating tax incentives and a lending facility for small businesses.

Mr. Obama is also expected to name a deputy to his budget director, Jacob J. Lew, and to move Ron Bloom, a Treasury adviser who oversaw the administration’s bailout and restructuring of the auto industry, into the White House to continue advising him on manufacturing policy.

Mr. Bloom, whose career has included stints as both an investment banker and a top official at the steelworkers union, enjoys ties with both organized labor and business leaders.

“Every president, after a couple of years, is going to go through some sort of transition,” Mr. Obama said, “partly prompted by the fact that people are working so darn hard.”

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