A Postmortem on William Daley


In one of the less noticed news items of the day, White House chief of staff William M. Daley has resigned. Mr. Daley was brought in during the wake of the 2010 midterm elections. Supposedly his business background would restore the president’s ties with American business, and his wheeler-dealer background would help find compromise with Republicans.

When Daley was first hired, I wrote that this was a very bad idea. The post, titled “William Daley – A Poor Chief-of-Staff” argued that nothing Daley had done in his career had come out of his own hard work. Rather, Daley had throughout his lifetime merely utilized the famous name of his father and brother, who were both mayors of Chicago, to get where he was. The post specifically argued:

William Daley, in many ways, stands out as the opposite of [the American Dream]. Mr. Daley has succeeded not because of any personal qualities – intelligence, leadership, ambition – but merely because of his last name. Mr. Daley’s father, Richard Daley, famously ruled the city of Chicago for decades and accumulated enormous power and massive political connections. Without those inherited connections, William Daley would not be where he is now.

Take, for instance, Mr. Daley’s job before being appointed Chief of Staff. He was an executive at Morgan Stanley who supervised its Washington lobbying efforts. Here is how Mr. Daley got the job:

…Chase executives, including Jamie Dimon, its chairman, wanted to bring in someone with Chicago connections who could smooth over relations with wealthy clients and corporations there.

One Chase official…recalled, “A few bankers said we should hire a Bill Daley,” meaning someone with Chicago political connections and clout who could serve as a new public face for Chase.

The primary reason, then, that Mr. Daley got his job was because his father happened to be Mayor of Chicago. Without the last name Daley, William would not be a top executive at a corporate bank. Without that prestigious position, he would not be the president’s Chief of Staff.

Being chief of staff of the White House, however, is something that doesn’t merely require a great last name. It requires talent, luck, and mostly importantly a lot of hard, hard work. As chief-of-staff to the president, one can’t succeed by merely utilizing family connections to lobby Washington politicians. Was Daley up to the job?

It turns out that he was not. While Daley was able to improve relations between the president and the business world, he failed disastrously in wheeling and dealing with the Republican Party. The president and the Republican Party spent the year fighting a series of battles on the budget and the federal debt. Most famously, Daley tried and failed to secure a grand deal with Republicans on the federal debt during debt ceiling negotiations. The end result left the president looking weak and unprepared.

Perhaps the final straw occurred when the White House scheduled an important speech on the night of a Republican primary debate. Daley claimed to have previously secured a deal with Republican party leaders in Congress to allow the president to speak to Congress on that date. Embarrassingly, this proved not to be the case; Republicans attacked the president for scheduling his speech during the middle of the primary debate, and the president was forced to back down. Daley, it turned out, was unable to secure a deal with the Republican Party on something as small as the date of a speech.

The new chief of staff, Jacob Lew, has a rather different story from William Daley. The son of immigrants, Lew was born in New York City and attended the public school system. He entered politics, like many individuals, working as an aide to a local congressman. Lew then gradually moved up the ladder; he previously worked as Obama’s Budget Director before becoming chief of staff.

Unlike, Daley, Jacob Lew does not have a famous last name. If Jacob Lew does better than William M. Daley’s failed tenure at the White House, it may be due to this fact.

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