With just over five weeks to go before Election Day, no one can say what Congress will look like after Nov. 2. But we can be sure that change is coming to Washington, as momentum builds for a White House shakeup.
Within weeks, President Obama may lose one of his closest advisers, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. As first reported by Time's Michael Scherer, Emanuel has signaled he could leave the White House as soon as the Senate adjourns — expected this week or next — to begin a campaign for mayor of Chicago. To make the ballot, Emanuel needs to gather 12,500 signatures by Nov. 22 — something he's legally prohibited from doing as a federal employee.
[Photos: Rahm Emanuel, White House chief of staff]
So far, White House aides aren't saying on the record what they expect Emanuel to do. A senior administration official tells The Upshot that nothing has been announced to staffers, but "no one would be surprised" to see Emanuel go before the midterms, in view of the Chicago mayoral deadline. The same staffer reports that fellow White House aides expect Obama to pick Pete Rouse, a White House senior adviser who served as Obama's chief of staff in the Senate, to be named acting chief of staff -- and possibly Emanuel's replacement when he goes.
Already, the White House is in a season of transition, seeing the beginnings of a staff exodus that virtually every administration goes through near the two-year mark of a presidency. In the past three months, Obama has lost nearly every member of his original economic team, save for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner — who is now facing some "will he stay or will he go" scrutiny of his own. Peter Orszag, Obama's budget director, resigned in July. Christina Romer, chair of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, left earlier this month. And this week, chief economic adviser Larry Summers announced he would leave the White House before the end of the year to return to Harvard.
And it's unlikely these are the last staff members to go. As Obama prepares for his 2012 re-election bid, some of his political advisers, including David Axelrod, are expected to leave the administration next year and return to the campaign. That, in turn, could elevate Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, who would probably pass on briefing duties to his top aide, Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton. There's also at least one expected shift in the Cabinet: Defense Secretary Robert Gates has signaled he will leave sometime in 2011, probably after the planned July 2011 drawdown of troops from Afghanistan.
The big unknown is how much a GOP takeover of the House, the Senate or both would affect the White House's staffing decisions. A Republican sweep in November would represent a major shift in the American political landscape. In that scenario, would Obama staff up with advisers willing to go toe to toe with Republicans who have threatened to launch investigations into his administration and roll back health care reform? Or will Obama go for a more moderate approach and try to find areas of common ground with the GOP?
Of course, another factor sure to influence a shakeup will be Obama's own bid for re-election in 2012. Obama advisers say the president is proud of his track record, having made good on 2008 campaign pledges to push through health care reform and new regulations on Wall Street. But he'll also be under pressure to account for other '08 promises that still await fulfillment -- most notably, his pledge to break partisan gridlock in Washington. If Republicans gain control of Congress, Obama will have to find ways of working with the other side, if only for the sake of preserving his own political future.
While administration officials won't discuss Obama's thinking on staffing matters, some of the names now surfacing as possible replacements for Emanuel signal that the president will, at least, pursue a more low-key approach in dealing with the opposition party next year. Rouse, for one, is the virtual opposite of Emanuel — a behind-the-scenes operator who shies away from the limelight. The same profile holds for the other lead candidates for chief of staff, including Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and Phil Schiliro, currently the head of Obama's congressional lobbying team. Another name frequently mentioned: former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, whose bid to join the administration in 2009 was felled by tax problems.
It's unlikely -- though not out of the question -- that Obama will go with an outsider. The president has made no secret of his preference for surrounding himself with people he already knows -- and knows well. But if November's elections prove to be as damaging for Democrats as polls predict, Obama could use the opportunity to bring in some fresh faces -- and push that oft-mentioned reset button for his own administration.
(Photo of Emanuel and Obama: Pete Souza/White House)