The White House Staff Shuffle Begins

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The Great Staff Exodus of 2010 has begun. Even before the traditional post-midterm turnover point, President Obama's kitchen cabinet is in the middle of a significant refurbishment. The staff changes will influence how policy is conceived and executed, and what type of advice the President receives (and takes).


Friends expect Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to decide within the next two weeks whether he will run for Chicago mayor. Emanuel's allies have taken several polls of Chicago voters, testing potential messages and the popularity of other candidates. Emanuel is aware that his biggest initial obstacle might be the opposition he engenders from liberals who believe his political instincts are at odds with their agenda. "If Rahm thinks he can win, he will run," a friend who has discussed the issue with him says. But he faces at least a half dozen Chicago pols whose ambitions rival his, and who have deeper ties to the city's powerful ethnic (white, black, Latino, Asian) voting blocks. 

Two people will replace Emanuel: one in the short term -- probably Pete Rouse, Obama's former Senate chief of staff and currently a senior adviser, or Tom Donilon, a veteran political and policy hand who runs operations for the National Security Council -- and one in the long term. Both Donilon and Rouse have expressed misgivings about taking the job permanently, and Obama will probably ask his interim chief of staff to help him select a permanent one. Rouse is incredibly loyal to the people he's worked with, and that might mean a renaissance of sorts for the "Daschle-ite" wing of the White House. Rouse was former Sen. Tom Daschle's long-time chief of staff before Daschle lent him to the new senator from Illinois. Daschle could very well become the permanent chief of staff. He is well-liked within the West Wing.

David Axelrod, the adviser most closely identified with Obama's branding and worldview, plans to return to Chicago by the middle of the spring, he has told friends. He will revise his senior strategic role in the president's re-election campaign. But he will remain in touch with the president on a daily basis.

Jim Messina, the deputy chief of staff who oversees politics and operations, is expected to move to the campaign headquarters as campaign manager.

Robert Gibbs, the president's press secretary and already one of the president's closet advisers, will probably step away from the front-line position to serve as a senior adviser. His likely replacement will be his principal deputy, Bill Burton. Any one of a handful of junior advisers who have known Obama longer than his senior advisers could fill Burton's role.

Valerie Jarrett, Obama's closest friend and confidante, is likely to remain at her post, although Obama may add to her responsibilities, including, perhaps, more oversight of the domestic policy council.

The change in status for whomever becomes the next chief of staff will come with added responsibilities, but also added perks, like a Secret Service detail. Emanuel has taken the code name "Black Hawk." 
 
With more room in the senior ranks, Obama is likely to award other staff members with promotions, among them Chris Lu, his former legislative chief who runs cabinet affairs, and Mona Sutphen, a deputy chief of staff who might joint the National Security Council in a principal deputy role.

Gen. James Jones, the National Security Adviser, has told the President that he hopes to leave the White House when the second Afghanistan strategy review is completed early next year. Potential replacements include several serving flag and general officers, including Vice Admiral William McRaven, who commands the president's secret counterterrorism forces, and Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has grown closer to Obama's advisers than others in the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates plans to leave sometime next year, and Emanuel has already begun an informal, private search for replacements. Obama is said to hope that he can find a Democrat like Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), who became close to Obama during the campaign, or Michelle Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy, or John Hamre, the head of the President's chief defense policy board.

For those guessing about a major portfolio switcharoo, where President Obama asks Hillary Clinton to be his vice president and asks Joe Biden to serve as Secretary of State, you can stop your speculation: it won't happen.
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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