When times are tough for a president, it's often his chief of staff who takes the blame and sometimes walks the plank.
That appears to have been part of the underlying dynamic in the resignation of the current White House chief of staff, Bill Daley, which was announced Monday afternoon. He will be replaced at the end of January by Jack Lew, the White House budget director.
Daley is a former secretary of commerce under President Bill Clinton and a former top executive with JP Morgan Chase, with many connections in the business world. When he took the job at the start of last year, he was expected to smooth over Obama's differences with corporate America and work closer with Republicans in Congress, establishing a more collegial relationship with both.
The White House did improve its dealings with business leaders somewhat, but relations with Congress remained rocky. There were prolonged fights with Republicans over various issues, including the debt ceiling and extending a payroll tax cut. In addition, some Democratic leaders felt they weren't being consulted enough by the West Wing. For his part, Daley was frustrated by all the hostility, the friction and the bitter atmosphere of a stalemate, Democratic strategists say.
For their part, some White House staffers weren't happy with what they considered Daly's aloof style. White House sources say Daley was never fully part of the inner circle of trusted advisers who are closest to Obama, such as senior strategist David Plouffe and Chicago confidante Valerie Jarrett.
A sign of Daley's declining influence came several weeks ago when many of his day-to-day responsibilities were transferred to Pete Rouse, another senior Obama aide.
Obama tried to put the best face on the change in public remarks today. "Bill has been an outstanding chief of staff during one of the busiest and most consequential years of my administration," the president said. White House officials say Daley's resignation took Obama by surprise and that Daley wanted to return to his hometown of Chicago and spend more time with his family.
Daley follows in the footsteps of other chiefs of staff who were eased out, felt compelled to resign or were fired amid tough times at the White House. They included Donald Regan under President Ronald Reagan and John Sununu under President George H.W. Bush.
Daley's replacement is more of a technocrat and numbers cruncher than an ideologue or Democratic partisan.
That's a sign of what Obama wants in his new staff leader--someone who will efficiently manage day-to-day operations at the White House and serve as an honest broker by fairly presenting policy and political options to the president.
In the meantime, as he seeks a second term, Obama is expected to emphasize more populist themes and aggressively take on the Republicans as promoters of big business and rich people while he bills himself as the defender of the middle class.
Obama's new, more confrontational attitude was evident in naming Richard Cordray to direct the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as a recess appointment rather than waiting for Congress to return from its vacation.