Bill Daley Is Right

Susan Estrich's column is released once a week.

Susan Estrich

Ten months after being appointed White House chief of staff, Bill Daley, former Commerce Secretary and trusted aide to presidents and presidential candidates for decades, announced that he is turning over much of his responsibility for the day-to-day management of the White House to longtime insider Peter Rouse. The official White House line is that Daley will be focusing more of his energies on the upcoming campaign, and that the move was in no way a demotion. Behind the scenes, of course, the picture is very different.

Let me be clear at the outset: I am a huge fan of Bill Daley and have been since working closely with him in the 1984 cycle. I have met few people in politics with his combination of smarts, savvy, integrity and loyalty. He is as tough as nails, but no one is more compassionate, more eager to help a friend, or more loyal to his colleagues and candidates. While I don't see him that often, he has never been too busy to take a call or answer an email when I've needed help or advice.

Need I add that that kind of loyalty and judgment is rare in politics.

But Daley has been under the gun in Washington since taking the hardest job in American politics, which to me says more about Washington than it does about him. He has been compared, unfavorably, to his predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, even though Emanuel, when he was in that job, was compared unfavorably to Attila the Hun.

In press accounts, there are two big raps against Daley: that he didn't treat Congress with the fawning respect they deserve, and that he didn't see himself as the "leaker in chief" whose job was to play the media against one another with himself as the kingmaker in the middle.

The criticism of his congressional-relations skills seems almost ludicrous to those who know him well. This is the guy who carried NAFTA — the North American Free Trade Agreement — through Congress for Bill Clinton, deftly walking the line between the president and the unions, discreetly twisting arms and counting votes, securing approval of what was then thought of as a poison pill by many Democrats with traditional working-class constituencies. You don't do that if you don't know how to play the game.

No, the rap has not been that Daley doesn't know how to play, but that he doesn't spend enough time doing it one on one. He actually prefers phone calls to meetings. He doesn't hole up in members' offices, making them feel like kings and queens. Imagine, the guy actually thinks he has a country to help run — actually, a world — which keeps him from being a fixture on the Hill and at nightly congressional receptions. Emanuel was there. Emanuel worked out in the White House gym, buttonholing congressmen in the buff. Rahm Emanuel, on that score, is missed much more than he was liked.

The press piece proceeds along similar lines. Emanuel played reporters against one another. He was stunningly skilled at selective leaks to favored reporters, spending much of his time rewarding friends and punishing critics in an effort, often successful, to encourage positive stories and discourage critical ones. The press may not have liked him better, but they feared him more.

Daley has admitted that he didn't see himself as leaker in chief, much less as the center of a complicated game of playing the press the way the most popular girl at the dance plays the boys. He was, in my book at least, too grown up; or at worst, too naive to see that playing the leaking game was more important than focusing on policy issues. Imagine. What a failure of judgment for a chief of staff.

Rouse certainly is more likely to spend his time courting Congress, praising Congress, going to meetings, inviting them to the White House, doing what it takes to make 535 prima donnas feel like they are the most important people on the planet. That may help the president. He is also more likely, and I'm not suggesting this doesn't matter, to spend time mentoring young staffers, sharing pictures of his cats with junior employees, keeping his door open to anyone with something to say. People say it's more fun and more rewarding to work for Rouse, and certainly that matters. These same people, however, say it was much less fun to work for Emanuel, which has not prevented him from emerging as an icon of leadership, at least since his departure.

In the end, what really got Daley in trouble, it appears, was not his restraint in dealing with Congress and the media, but his openness about what is wrong with Washington. His days were numbered when he had the audacity to speak the truth, on the record no less, and criticize "both Democrats and Republicans (who) have made it very difficult for the president to be anything like a chief executive."

That is not something a Democratic chief of staff is supposed to say. He's supposed to say it's all the fault of Republicans, that they alone have poisoned Washington and undermined the presidency, that the cancer is limited to their side of the aisle. Democratic members may have been chafing at getting calls instead of visits, but holding them responsible was almost certainly the nail in the coffin.

And that's too bad, because, as he has been so many times in his career, Bill Daley is right. And until both sides understand that, no president — Republican or Democrat — is going to have anything but a difficult time in his job.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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