WASHINGTON -- Ask a congressional Democrat about the job Bill Daley is doing as President Barack Obama's chief of staff, and chances are you'll be met with a blank stare.
Daley, a former JPMorgan Chase executive, joined Obama's inner circle back in January, just as Congress was kicking off with a newly Republican House and a weakened Democratic majority in the Senate. Hiring a banking executive to run White House operations presented at least two perceived advantages for a president looking to shore up his support among business: it brought in a prolific fundraiser with deep corporate ties and it helped ease tensions with business leaders peeved at Obama for what they saw as his anti-business policies and rhetoric -- namely, health care reform, financial reform, and his utterance, once, of the term "fat cats.”
But eight months into Daley's tenure, Democrats on the Hill and even in the White House are struggling with a mysterious emotion: They miss Rahm Emanuel.
The two Illinois natives couldn't be more different in their style and approach to the job. Emanuel, a former House Democratic leader who is now the mayor of Chicago, was known as much for his aggressive and sometimes foul-mouthed negotiating tactics as he was for his mastery of Congress' inner workings and hands-on approach to seeing a task all the way through. Daley was formerly Bill Clinton's Commerce Secretary, a cabinet position that in most administrations would be more aptly named Secretary of Fundraising. It's not a job that entails intimate interaction with Congress. So far, in his newest role, Daley has been much more removed from Hill happenings and less visible as a manager within White House daily life than Emanuel was.
A former administration official described Daley as disorganized and suggested staffers have struggled with his style of management. People are "longing for Rahm," the official told The Huffington Post.
On Capitol Hill, top Democratic aides say frustrations have reached a boiling point when it comes to Daley's lack of engagement with them.
"It's gotten really bad," said one senior Democratic aide. Democratic leaders "have basically come to the conclusion that he's not up to the job and doesn't really get how Congress works. At all.”
White House officials defended Daley's performance and pointed to the daunting responsibilities he inherited just in his first few months on the job: overseeing operations in the wake of the Tucson shootings, navigating a budget fight that teetered on the edge of a government shutdown and running operations in the midst of finding and killing Osama bin Laden.
There are “always challenges” when it comes to White House-Congress relations, said White House deputy senior adviser Stephanie Cutter, and keeping “open lines of communication” is the most critical factor.
“Bill has done that from the moment he came into office,” Cutter told The Huffington Post.
The lines may be open, but there isn't much traffic on them. A senior House Democratic aide said Daley's name rarely comes up in leadership meetings. And when it does, said this aide, it's not because he has played a significant role in shaping discussions.
"I don't get the sense of, 'Oh, he's really in charge or extremely effective,'" the aide said. "I don't get the sense that … he’s a really strong chief of staff, that he's really running the show."
When Daley does get involved, he leaves progressives wishing he'd stuck to his laissez-faire approach. Democrats have taken issue with Daley for cozying up to Republicans and conceding too much, too soon, in negotiations with them. He routinely reminds GOP leaders how his business background colors his politics, trying to get across the message that he's not so different from them. "He constantly feels the need to tell [House Speaker John] Boehner and [Majority Leader Eric] Cantor that he agrees with us on regulations," said one House Republican aide. "It's almost an obsession."
Last month, Daley was reportedly a driving force behind Obama’s decision not to roll out new draft ozone standards. The move outraged environmental groups but Republicans hailed it as a step in the right direction, saying it freed up businesses to create jobs by freeing them from cumbersome regulations.
"He's working with Congress? Which side of the aisle?" said Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a frequent Obama administration critic.
"The few people I know who have had conversations with him came away less than satisfied," DeFazio said. "He's not responsive ... I never even hear the leaders talk about him."
Daley's Democratic critics, however, fail to recognize one of the main purposes of bringing him on as the campaign season ramps up: He's there to raise money.
As a rainmaker, Daley earns respect, if not fear, from members of his own party. Lawmakers are loath to criticize him publicly. And while leadership may acknowledge that he has some catching up to do in terms of learning the provincial elements of congressional relations, they seem eager to give him some time.
"Daley is always available, always talking, sharing information," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the third-ranking Senate Democrat. "I think it's worked out well."
Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) said Daley just has a "much different" approach to working with Congress than his predecessor.
"Rahm Emanuel was not only a creature of the House, he knew many of the senators," Durbin said. "Bill Daley does not have that depth of relationship coming in."
Asked if he misses Emanuel's influence in White House negotiations, Durbin said, "I don’t miss him at all because I see him all the time in Chicago. I'm glad he's in Chicago doing that job."
A request for comment from Emanuel was not immediately returned.
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The reality, of course, is that Daley occupies one of the least enviable political positions in Washington. The chief of staff’s job duties include taking the body blows that are meant for the president. After all, it was Obama, not Daley, who signed off on scrapping new ozone standards and pushing through a spending-cut-only debt ceiling deal. But in subsequent reports, the responsibility for those decisions was left as often at Daley’s feet it was at Obama’s.
The former Commerce Secretary was also dealt a far tougher hand than his predecessor. Instead of entering his office with an immensely popular president and large Democratic majorities in both congressional chambers, Daley joined an administration at the onset of a political nosedive and as Republicans took control of the House of Representatives.
Lawmakers say they recognize the different scenarios confronting Daley and Emanuel. Some are even willing to forgive the White House’s scaled-back approach because of those divergent circumstances. For example, at a time when the administration is under fire from black lawmakers for not doing enough to create jobs within the African-American community -- which faces a higher rate of unemployment -- Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) said he sees Daley as an ally on that front.
"He understands the African-American psychology," said Cleaver, who somehow got word that The Huffington Post was writing a profile of Daley and reached out to praise him. Cleaver said he "[doesn't] blame him" for Obama not doing more to aid the black community, because Daley "can make a lot of connections in areas that might have gone astray" in terms of shaping effective policies that help minorities.
Other Democrats, meanwhile, questioned why their colleagues are complaining about Daley working predominantly with Republicans when they are the ones who control the congressional levers of power.
"I don't know what ally they were expecting out of the chief of staff," said a House Democratic leadership aide. "Maybe people have been more used to [the chief of staff] playing a more aggressive role, like what Rahm did, but that was unique to those years."
But the partisan makeup of the House doesn’t excuse what some Democratic officials have described as a too-quick-to-compromise legislative strategy. During the government shutdown talks with Republicans this past spring, Daley signed off on billions in cuts that congressional Democrats were, at that point, unwilling to make, according to a source familiar with those negotiations. The party ultimately ended up offering additional cuts beyond that. But as the final deal went through, several Democratic sources said lawmakers were smarting over what they viewed as a preemptive, uncoordinated concession.
Perhaps that’s why, when asked, Republicans say they like the current setup just fine.
"We had almost no interaction with Rahm when he was [chief of staff]," said a House GOP leadership aide. "That we have a relationship at all now is an improvement from last Congress. Surely that is in part due to our status in the majority now, but to us, Daley has been more visible."
But does it matter? A White House official dismissed the suggestion that Emanuel, through sheer will, would've been able to force House Republicans to raise the debt ceiling without taking a chunk out of the budget's hindquarters.
"Insisting is nice; they weren’t going to do it," said the official. "It's easy for congressional Democrats to say, 'Blame it on congressional Republicans' … but the reality is the president of the United States, he doesn’t have the option of blaming somebody. He needs to find a solution."
* * * * *
Daley may have found his groove in the run-up to Obama's jobs speech. Cutter relayed that he provided “tremendous leadership" in days before that bicameral address and played an integral role in putting together the American Jobs Act. Obama’s $447 billion proposal has a difficult path forward in Congress but it has allowed the president, at least momentarily, to take the reins on the political narrative.
"He drove a process that put the best ideas on the table … to reach out to all corners of the economy, to labor, to business, to progressives, to figure out what we needed now for the economy,” Cutter said. “The president chose him because he provides that leadership."
Yet there have still been missteps. There was the largely symbolic gaffe of being unable to schedule a date for the president's speech, with congressional Republicans rejecting the president's initial request for the first time in history. More consequential has been the administration's inability to get the Democratic Party -- primarily its centrist members -- behind the president’s proposal, all of which leads to a logical question: Would Rahm have had more success?
"It's probably a fair thing to say right now that Democrats on the Hill are not terribly pleased with our relationship as an administration to them," said a senior administration official. "Bill has become sort of the convenient new guy to blame for that."
"I think after Rahm left, Rahm became much more beloved on the Hill than he was when he was here," the official said of the retrospective Emanuel longing. "It was just a different time.”
Indeed, there does appear to be a bit of willful amnesia among Hill Democrats. The Emanuel era was hardly a beacon of cordiality. Rather, it was punctuated by routine sniping and second guessing between both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Revisionist Emanuel historians may be influenced by the radically different climate that exists in the 112th Congress, where the prospects of additional government spending (let alone passing a massive stimulus bill) seem utterly remote. But the revisionism may also, in the end, be driven by the stark personality differences between Obama’s former and current chiefs of staff.
"Rahm couldn't have picked a better successor,” a former Senate aide who worked closely with Emanuel told The Huffington Post. “Daley has ... managed to make people miss [him]."
Ryan Grim contributed to this report.
CORRECTION: This story originally reported that Bill Daley attended a fundraiser in Chicago with President Obama during debt ceiling negotiations. The White House says that that fundraiser was canceled and that the fundraiser Daley attended was held the day after the compromise was signed into law. We will be updating the piece with additional information on the specific fundraiser in question as we receive it.
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