David Plouffe, President Barack Obama’s newest senior White House adviser, has a benchmark for anything his boss does these days: How will it play with a middle-aged white woman in Ohio?
William Daley, Obama’s chief of staff, can relate to such focus. When aides were searching for the ultimate example of government inefficiency that Obama could cite in his State of the Union address, Daley had the answer: interjurisdictional salmon. One agency, he explained, is in charge of freshwater salmon, while another deals with the fish in saltwater.
That combination of tactical thinking and problem-solving the two men bring to Obama’s inner circle is creating more organization in a White House that needs it, current and former administration officials said. It will prove useful to the president as he confronts a new, hostile environment in Congress and prepares for his re-election campaign, they say.
When Obama entered office with a staff that had largely worked together before, such organization didn’t mean as much.
“The structure was less important because everyone knew each other so well, but now you have a lot of new people in the mix,” said communications director Dan Pfeiffer. “This is an important and challenging two years, and we need to be set up in the best possible way.”
Daley is part of a Chicago political dynasty, a former Commerce secretary and JPMorgan Chase & Co. executive who insists on structure. Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, is driven by data and measurable results, and is adding the discipline and accountability that officials credit with making the long-shot presidential run a success.
Part of that success owes to Plouffe’s focus on Ohio and women voters. The state is a reliable predictor of national moods, having voted with the winner in the last 12 presidential elections, and women are a key swing constituency.
Plouffe and Daley replace two men who have been friends and worked together for 30 years -- David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel, who left last year seeking to succeed Daley’s brother, Richard M. Daley, as mayor of Chicago. The new arrivals bring different skills and temperaments to the West Wing.
Axelrod, known for puns, had a broad-brush style and was often late for meetings; Plouffe, an avid runner, favors dry humor and a more technocratic approach, and arrives on time. Emanuel’s profane, frenetic nature has been replaced by Daley’s introverted and calibrated ways. If the Emanuel-Axelrod West Wing had more character, emotion and cursing, the Plouffe-Daley regime is more corporate, sterile and stoic, officials say.
Office habits are also different, even though Daley and Plouffe occupy those of their predecessors. Plouffe’s is closest to the Oval Office and Daley’s office is the largest, with its own outdoor patio.
The current chief of staff’s door is usually closed, while Emanuel’s was mostly open, which made him more accessible to staff and easily consulted for last-minute meetings. Plouffe and Daley are less chatty, avoid casual conversation and interact with far fewer people in the building, leaving some aides wondering where they stand with the new advisers.
“Our styles are just different,” Daley said at a Feb. 2 Bloomberg Breakfast in Washington. “Rahm very much needed to do it all. And I don’t have such a need.”
Neither Emanuel nor Axelrod was known for organizational prowess, which was a vacuum that needed to be filled, current and former officials said. While aides say they miss the soul the West Wing had, the structure Plouffe and Daley provide is welcomed. It was something Pete Rouse, interim chief of staff after Emanuel, said was needed, in a series of recommendations to Obama on a reorganization plan Rouse spearheaded.
“Temperamentally, they’re a great pairing,” said Axelrod. “They’re both sensible down-to-earth, unpretentious, and very, very smart people. And they’re willing to subjugate their own egos to the greater good.”
To be sure, discipline and organization can only serve the president so much in the face of distracting and unforeseen events, like the unfolding unrest in the Middle East.
“It’s not simply a question of making the trains run on time and reducing leaks and freelancing,” said William Galston, a scholar at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and former domestic-policy adviser to President Bill Clinton. “If you have a news environment that’s dominated for three weeks by the riveting events in Egypt, the ability of a White House to do anything except react to those events is very limited.”
Both Daley and Plouffe declined to comment for this article.
Under their leadership, meetings are shorter, more focused and fewer people are invited. While there used to be a senior advisers’ meeting at 7:30 a.m. every day followed by a senior staff session at 8:30 a.m., the latter is now only held on Fridays.
During preparations for the State of the Union address, the process for interest groups and agencies plugging their issues was streamlined. If it didn’t fit with the White House’s new “Win the Future” theme, it didn’t make it into the speech, an official said. Daley put a structure in place that prevented groups from lobbying up the chain of command, as they had done in years past, sometimes to the president himself.
While Daley isn’t particularly detail-oriented, Plouffe drives strategy and message across the communications, outreach and new media offices. He monitors press releases to make sure they include the “Win the Future” mantra.
Officials conceded they might have taken the mandate a little too far when a Feb. 4 press release was titled, “Obama Administration Celebrates Black History by Winning the Future.”
A campaign-style media strategy and travel schedule is beginning to take shape as well. Obama sat for interviews Feb. 16 with local networks in the swing states of Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin to discuss his fiscal 2012 budget.
The White House announced Obama would be traveling to Cleveland on Feb. 22 to convene a “Winning the Future” forum on small business by distributing an article from the Plain Dealer newspaper.
While Obama sought to address criticism that his West Wing was too insular, under Plouffe and Daley there are fewer advisers who can bypass gatekeepers and go straight to the president. Confidantes Valerie Jarrett and Rouse still have direct lines to the Oval Office, though the new press secretary, Jay Carney, doesn’t have the history with Obama that allowed predecessor Robert Gibbs to do so.
For all the seriousness of purpose in the new White House, there are still times when comedy is appreciated.
Throughout Obama’s hour-long press conference Feb. 15, Plouffe and Daley stood next to each other in the corner by the exit. Daley’s hands were clasped below his waist, Plouffe’s arms crossed in front of him, and both were straight-faced the entire time -- save one moment.
About 50 minutes in, Pfeiffer handed his BlackBerry to Plouffe and Daley who looked at the screen and laughed. It was a headline that had just crossed from the Associated Press:
“Obama Praises Rahm Emanuel for Shoveling Snow.”