Obama's Staff Exodus: What Will Happen Next?

Rahm Emanuel (R), US president-elect Barack Obama's chief of staff designate, and adviser David Axelrod listen to Obama during a press conference in Chicago on December 19, 2008 to introduce his pick of California Rep. Hilda Solis as his labor secretary, former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk as trade representative, Republican Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois as transportation secretary, and Karen Mills to head the Small Business Administration.
Getty Images/Nicholas Kamm
Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod
Getty Images/Nicholas Kamm

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.

First, friends expect chief of staff Rahm Emanuel to decide within the next two weeks about a 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.

Two people will replace Emanuel: one in the short term -- probably Pete Rouse, Mr. 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. Both Donilon and Rouse have expressed misgivings about taking the job permanently, and Mr. Obama will probably ask his interim chief of staff to help him select a permanent one.

David Axelrod, the adviser most closely identified with Mr. Obama's branding and worldview, also 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.

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.

Valerie Jarrett, Mr. Obama's closest friend and confidant, is likely to remain at her post, although Mr. Obama may add to her responsibilities.

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, Mr. Obama is likely to award other staff members with promotions, including 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 Mr. 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. Mr. Obama is said to hope that he can find a Democrat like Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who became close to Mr. 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.

The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder is CBS News' chief political consultant. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here. You can also follow him on Twitter.