By Roger Simon
It is a sunny day at the White House with bright light streaming through the gauzy curtains that cover the patio doors and many windows of Bill Daley’s corner office in the West Wing. And so I try to find some underlying gloom.
Daley, the White House chief of staff, will twice in the course of our hourlong interview refer to the first three years of Barack Obama’s administration as “ungodly” and once as “brutal.”
So do you think, I ask, that President Obama would be satisfied saying, “We did a good job, we did good stuff,” and if he’s a one-term president, “That’s the verdict of history”?
“Nope, no, absolutely not!” Daley begins, shaking his head and then growing more outraged at the thought of a single term entering the president’s mind. “I think he’d be angry! Unhappy! Frustrated! No, if somebody said yes to that, that would be crazy.”
But the polls stink.
“Considering the debacle that he came in with, the tough choices he’s made and how there have been few, if any breaks, he says it himself all the time,” Daley says. “He doesn’t know why he’s as high as 44 percent.”
That is supposed to be a laugh line, but, indeed, the RealClearPolitics average of leading polls currently has Obama at 44.0 percent approval and 50.7 percent disapproval.
That is due to many factors, Daley says, and he starts reeling them off: trying to stimulate the economy; trying to save the auto industry; trying to increase the debt ceiling; passing health care legislation; fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; and dealing with Syria, North Korea, Egypt and Iran. To name a few.
“It’s been a brutal three years,” he says. “It’s been a very, very difficult three years, an incredible three years. And we are doing all this under the overhang of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. It wasn’t like all this was happening in good times.”
But good times – well, better times – are possible before November 2012, Daley says. And all President Obama has to do to achieve this is make a startling end run around not just the Republicans but also the Democrats, in Congress.
All he has to do, Daley says, is operate in domestic affairs with the same speed, power and independence that he possesses in foreign and military affairs.
“On the domestic side, both Democrats and Republicans have really made it very difficult for the president to be anything like a chief executive,” Daley says. “This has led to a kind of frustration.”
The president’s solution? “Let’s figure out what we can do [without Congress] and push the envelope on some of these things,” Daley says.
Daley recognizes that there are three branches of government and the president leads only one of them, but now is the time for him to flex his muscles and show what he can do without the squabbling, ineffective – and far less popular than even he – Congress.
“On the foreign policy-military side, you can act pretty quickly,” Daley says. “That is why the president, based upon frustration, is doing this ‘we can’t wait.’ He is going to every agency, every department, and saying, ‘What can you do on your own? What can we not have to wait for legislation to do?’ ”
Daley slaps one hand into the other with a sharp crack. “Let’s re-emphasize what powers we have! What we can do on our own! Push the envelope!”
Which is why the president has recently announced new plans to refinance homes, ease the debt burden of some college students and fast-track former military medics into private-sector hospital jobs.
Congress? He don’t need no stinkin’ Congress! There is an obvious downside: Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress soon will grow furious over this. But that is for the future. Obama has to address the here and now, and Congress is getting in the way of that.
“We are trying to do something in this modern presidency that has been very much engulfed by the legislative process, Democrat and Republican, over the last 40 years,” Daley says.
Instead of continuing to butt heads with Congress, the White House is going to turn its back on it when it can. (“Whether it will rise to the level of building a dam without going to Congress, that’s not realistic,” Daley says.)
All of this flows, the White House believes, from a determined effort by some in Congress, as the president recently said, to put “party ahead of country or the next election ahead of the next generation.”
“You know, when the minority of the leader of the Senate says my No. 1 objective in life is to make President Obama a one-term president, and then all decisions flow from that, it’s pretty hard not to be pretty cynical about that,” Daley says. “That truly was an amazing statement.”
(“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in an interview with the National Journal in October 2010.)
There have been a number of articles in recent weeks saying Daley doesn’t really understand the workings of Congress. But Daley was Bill Clinton’s NAFTA czar in 1993, successfully lining up the votes to pass a very difficult bill for Democrats to swallow. And for years afterward, Daley kept a well-thumbed eight-page list with the names of the members of Congress who voted for the bill. What’s more, he told me years ago, “When they call and ask Rich (Richard M. Daley, Chicago’s mayor from April 1989 to May 2011) to come out for a fundraiser, I pull out this list and see if they voted with us on NAFTA.”
True, 1993 was a long time ago, but the four highest-ranking members of Congress – House Speaker John Boehner, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and McConnell – were in Congress at the time Daley was on the Hill twisting arms.
Daley’s predecessor as chief of staff was Rahm Emanuel, who became Richard M. Daley’s successor as mayor of Chicago. And some of the articles critical of Bill Daley have said Emanuel was far more adept as chief of staff. This is an accusation likely to rankle Daley, considering he kick-started Emanuel’s career by hiring him for his brother’s first successful mayor’s race.
People are asking if you are as good as Rahm, I say to Daley.
“It’s pathetic, isn’t it?” Daley responds, laughing.
Rahm wouldn’t say it, I say.
“Rahm would say it!” Daley says. “Maybe I missed it – I wasn’t here the first two years – but I don’t think Rahm was as beloved (as people now say.)”
Rahm was famous for calling reporters, do you call reporters? I ask.
“I call; I’m not as aggressive leaking and stroking,” Daley says. “I’m not reflecting on Rahm, but I’m not angling for something else, you know? Rahm is a lot younger [Emmanuel is 51], and he knew he was going to be doing something else in two years or four years or eight years, and I’m in a different stage. I’m not going to become the leaker in chief.”
You’ve got others for that, I say.
“Yeah, and hopefully in some organized leaking fashion,” Daley says, laughing. “I’m all for leaking when it’s organized.”
Daley has near-total access to Obama. “There’s no meeting that he’s having that I can’t walk into,” Daley says. “But you’ve got to make the judgment whether it’s appropriate to walk in.” He was in every briefing the president had on the Osama bin Laden raid and gives advice to the president on both policy and politics.
And you can keep policy and politics separate? I ask.
“They can be separate, yeah,” Daley says. “You can say, ‘Look, this may be good policy, but the politics of it may be sh-.'”
And which will the president go for?
“He’ll try to find that middle ground,” Daley says in a bemused tone. “‘How close can we get to it being really policy but getting something accomplished?'”
All this accomplishment must come quickly. The presidential election is less than 13 months away, and Daley says he honestly believes that no matter whom the Republicans nominate among their front-runners, it will be a close race.
“Look at ’08, the president got 53 percent of the vote,” Daley says. “Against a relatively older candidate who had Sarah Palin as a running mate! And he gets [only] 53 percent of the vote! So why would this not be a close election?”
Daley sits in an armchair in front of a fireplace above which hangs a portrait of Abraham Lincoln – a man with one of the few last names in Illinois more famous than Daley’s own. Daley is wearing a white shirt with a monogrammed breast pocket, a patterned tie of pale lavender, cuff links and blue pinstripe trousers. I don’t think I have ever before seen him without his suit jacket on.
In the iconic Situation Room photograph of the Obama security team watching the raid on Osama bin Laden, Joe Biden sits without a jacket or tie, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has no jacket, Obama is hunched forward in a windbreaker and polo shirt, but Bill Daley stands ramrod straight in a navy blue suit, blue dress shirt and pale blue tie. Some mistake his dress for stiffness or stuffiness, but he is neither. He dresses as his late father dressed – carefully, expensively, properly, above any hint that he is unworthy of the high position he holds.
In Bill Daley’s former law office in Chicago, he kept on prominent display an authentic sign from 1915 that read: “Help Wanted. No Irish Need Apply.” The Daleys remember where they came from and how far they have gotten, though Daley says he will leave the White House after Obama’s “reelection” about two years after Daley took the job. (The average term for a chief of staff is less than 2½ years.)
Daley, 63, says the chief of staff job is the best he has ever held, though there is “nothing I’ve seen here that I didn’t know about politics. Politics is all about relationships, people. A lot of it’s emotional. It’s not rocket science.”
Daley also says the White House is less besieged than it may sometimes appear.
“It’s not like during the Clinton impeachment stuff; that was really embattled,” Daley, who was commerce secretary at the time, says. “That was a freakin’ drag out, knockout, every day sort of bing-bang-bong. There isn’t that now. There isn’t a sort of ‘woe is us’, kind of dragging around, tail between the legs. Maybe there ought to be, but there sure isn’t.”
Daley is expecting dramatic, unpredictable events between now and Election Day.
“There is a lot going to happen in the next 13 months. A lot. I would like to say it’s all going to be good, but nobody knows,” Daley says. “I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that we have a stronger attitude around the economy. I’m not saying we’re going to be down to 6 percent unemployment, but just the beginning of a psychological change. Right now, that is the biggest thing. What are the factors that [will create] that? Who knows?”
All that he knows is that it’s going to be a wild ride.
“You can just feel this electorate is very volatile,” Daley says. “So strap yourself in.”