Image: Obama, Axelrod, Gibbs, Emanuel
Pete Souza
President Barack Obama with Senior Advisor David Axelrod, then-Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and Press Secretary Robert Gibbs in the Red Room of the White House prior to a press conference in March 2009. By February, all three staffers will have left the White House.
NBC News and news services
updated 1/5/2011 4:07:05 PM ET 2011-01-05T21:07:05

President Barack Obama is shaking up his senior leadership team to deal with the new realities of his term: The era of big legislation is over, his massive re-election effort needs energy and people, and the White House is taking a toll on those who run it.

On Wednesday, Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary and one of the most visible and forceful advocates for Obama, quit his job to become outside political adviser for the president.

10 staffers who've left the Obama administration

The move, effective by early February, allows Gibbs to leave the grinding pace of the job, make money giving speeches and spend more time with his family. But it also will change the dynamic of the White House, particularly combined with the coming departure of senior adviser David Axelrod, who, like Gibbs, has been at Obama's side for his entire presidential run.

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Obama is also weighing a change at the top staff job at the White House and perhaps in all of politics: his chief of staff. The interim holder of that job, Pete Rouse, may leave it soon, and the president is considering bringing in William Daley, the banking executive and former commerce secretary under President Bill Clinton.

In the coming days and weeks, Obama is also expected to have a new chief economic adviser, a new senior political counselor, and two new deputy chiefs of staff.

“You’ll be seeing announcements in due course. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Obama told The New York Times. “We’re not going to be dilly-dallying along when it comes to making sure that we’re executing on behalf of the American people.”

Collectively, the moves reflect that change is coming to the White House in ways that will alter the dynamic of the place — and, in turn, will influence the agenda affecting the nation. The vice president's office is in for its own new leadership, with its chief of staff, Ron Klain, leaving to run an investment company.

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People outside of Washington politics may not recognize the names of the players. How Obama is rebooting his operation is the broader story, and the aides guiding him are a central part of it.

The White House goals are to become more efficient and less insular, to realign itself for divided government, to find fresh voices and to get Obama re-elected. A major emphasis will be to ensure that the campaign works in tandem with the White House, with Obama loyalists spread across the parallel operations or helping from outside both of them.

"To a certain degree, your team is your team," Gibbs said. "They may all just work in different places."

Among the expected (and already announced) changes:

—William Daley is under serious consideration to replace Rouse as chief of staff, which is considered the most important gatekeeping job in American politics. Daley, a banking executive and former Cabinet secretary under President Bill Clinton, is said to want the job. Rouse, a camera-shy adviser to Obama who has served smoothly as interim chief of staff, had never wanted to do it for long. If Rouse decides to leave, Daley will likely come aboard. No other scenarios are being strongly considered. Obama and Rouse are expected to decide shortly.

—Gibbs, the most visible spokesman for the president, is leaving the White House after the State of the Union. He'll continuing working for the president but as an outside consultant, essentially setting up the Washington-arm of the Obama re-election campaign. “He’s had a six-year stretch now where basically he’s been going 24/7 with relatively modest pay,” Obama told The New York Times. “I think it’s natural for someone like Robert to want to step back for a second to reflect, retool and that, as a consequence, brings about both challenges and opportunities for the White House.”

—Gene Sperling, a Treasury official and deficit hawk with ties to Wall Street and the Clinton administration, is considered most likely to become Obama's chief economic adviser. That announcement could come as soon as Friday. Sperling would replace Lawrence Summers as director of the National Economic Council. The job becomes even more important considering that no task is more vital to Obama, both for the country's well-being and his own political fortunes, than boosting job growth in a time of high unemployment.

—Jim Messina, the deputy chief of staff who juggles operations, politics and legislative roles, is expected to leave to run Obama's re-election bid out of Chicago. He will likely be replaced by Alyssa Mastromonaco, whose portfolio would center on overseeing the operational aspects of the White House, including staffing and budgeting. Mona Sutphen, Obama's deputy chief of staff for policy, is also expected to leave her post.

—David Axelrod, one of Obama's most trusted advisers and strategists, is leaving the White House after the State of the Union speech in January. He plans to recharge at home in Chicago and play a significant role in Obama's re-election bid. David Plouffe, Obama's presidential campaign manager and a counselor to Obama over the last two years from outside the building, is expected to join the White House as early as next week as a top adviser.

For all the insider intrigue that surrounds who is coming and going, the overlooked element is why.

One core factor shaping Obama's thinking is the new dynamic in Washington. Republicans have won control of the House and eroded the Democratic majority in the Senate, which fundamentally changes the White House agenda.

Obama's chief of staff must reorient his legislative and legal departments to deal with a Republican-led House. The White House will be on the defensive much more than the offensive, trying to protect and enforce the huge health care and Wall Street reform laws of the last year, and getting more organized to deal with aggressive Republican oversight.

For all of Obama's intentions to swing big on areas like immigration reform, aides realistically expect a greater focus on implementation and on trying to work with Republicans on cutting the deficit.

If he were to place figures such as Daley and Sperling steps away from the Oval Office, Obama would be relying on veterans of the Clinton administration. With Republicans clamoring for fiscal restraint and more jobs, Daley and Sperling would be a not-so-subtle nod to a period when budgets were balanced, the economy was humming and the man in the White House was a Democrat.

"It was a very sweet period of time when everything seemed to conspire for a balanced budget," said John Duncan, a lobbyist and a senior Treasury official in the Bush administration. "The point is that Obama could be reaching out to bring in that experienced Clinton machinery to gear up."

Another issue at play is fatigue. People like Axelrod and Gibbs who have been with Obama from the start are ready for a break. So are others in a White House that has kept a crushing schedule. Some senior staff members are eager for fewer hours, more family time and a bigger private-sector salary. Staff members are being asked to either leave shortly or stay for the remaining two years of the term.

The reorganization, led by Rouse, also reflects the first major chance for the Obama White House to review how it works. It is expected to include structural and portfolio changes, and it may be done in a way that addresses Obama's goals of better communicating with the American people.

NBC's Chuck Todd contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Welcome to the Obama White House, 2.0

Explainer: The GOP's key players going into 2012

  • Republicans are taking control of the House for the first time since 2006, while in the Senate they’ve gained six seats and can block most Democratic initiatives. Here are some of the important committee chairmen and the pivotal GOP senators who will help determine the outcome of legislative struggles with the Democrats over the next two years.

  • Rep. Spencer Bachus, chair, House Financial Services Committee

    Gary Cameron  /  Reuters

    A soft-spoken Alabaman, Bachus will have a crucial role in overseeing banking, consumer protection and securities trading. His domain will include the Federal Reserve, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as troubled government-owned mortgage guarantors Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He doesn’t have the rhetorical flash and stinging wit of his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Barney Frank, with whom he has often jousted. Bachus drew fire when he told The Birmingham News on Dec. 9 that, “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.” He later amended that comment, saying that regulators should not micromanage banks, but should set ground rules for how they operate. “Bachus' staff is going to be very busy getting him to retract statements in which he reveals what he really believes about a fundamental issue before the Committee,” Frank said.

  • Sen. Scott Brown, R- Mass.

    Hyungwon Kang  /  Reuters

    Brown’s victory in the Jan. 19, 2010 special election to fill out the unexpired term of Sen. Edward Kennedy signaled that the tide was turning against President Barack Obama and his allies in Congress. No Republican had won a Senate election in Massachusetts since 1972, when Brown was only 13 years old. Brown must run for re-election in 2012 and as a Republican senator from one of the nation’s most Democratic states, he’s a sensitive political indicator. With his vote being closely watched on every major issue, Brown voted for the Obama administration’s arms control treaty with Russia and for repealing the military “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay service members. But he voted against the DREAM Act to grant legal residency to children of illegal immigrants, calling it "backdoor amnesty."

  • Rep. Eric Cantor, House majority leader

    Jonathan Ernst  /  Reuters

    Elected in 2000, Cantor has risen to become one of his party’s most visible spokesman and a principal tactician for House Republicans. He got started in politics as a teenager by serving as a driver for Rep. Thomas Bliley, R-Va. Cantor now holds the Richmond-based House seat that Bliley once held.

  • Rep. David Dreier, chair, House Rules Committee

    Harry Hamburg  /  ASSOCIATED PRESS

    One of several Californians in leadership positions in the new Republican majority, Dreier will have the job of designing the rules for each piece of legislation that comes to the House, including how many amendments the minority party can offer to bills. First elected in 1980, Dreier served as Rules Committee chairman from 1998 to 2006, when the GOP was in the majority. If process controls legislative substance, then Dreier is the one who’ll control the process.

  • Rep. Darrell Issa, chair, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee

    Tim Sloan  /  AFP - Getty Images

    The grandson of Lebanese immigrants, Issa was born and raised in Cleveland and made his money in the car alarm business. He helped underwrite the recall effort against California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003 and spent $11 million on an unsuccessful bid to be GOP Senate candidate against Sen. Barbara Boxer in 1998. The six-term California Republican has promised to investigate vigorously alleged abuses of power by Obama administration officials. "Our committee is the committee of stopping government from taking away your liberties” and “stopping government from exceeding its authority,” he said. 

  • Sen. Jon Kyl, Senate minority whip

    Michael Reynolds  /  EPA

    Serving his third term in the Senate, after four terms in the House, Kyl is the chief GOP vote counter, figuring out members’ sentiment on bills and nominations. He’s up for re-election in 2012. The son of a former House member from Iowa, Kyl led the opposition to the Obama administration’s arms control treaty with Russia. “What we ought to be doing is focusing on Iran and North Korea and other places where maybe there is proliferation going on, and a desire to develop nuclear weapons that could potentially attack the United States,” he said.

  • Rep. Kevin McCarthy, House majority whip

    Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images

    First elected in 2006 from a safe Republican district which includes his hometown, Bakersfield, Calif., McCarthy has vaulted with impressive speed to the third-ranking position in GOP House leadership. He’ll be the first Republican from California to serve as majority whip. McCarthy learned politics from his former boss, Rep. Bill Thomas, whose seat he won when Thomas retired. McCarthy was Republican leader when he served in the California Assembly. According to the Los Angeles Times, McCarthy has “an encyclopedic knowledge about his House colleagues' idiosyncrasies and political needs” and “has pored over the profiles of lawmakers and their districts in the thick Almanac of American Politics on flights between California and Washington.”

  • Rep. Paul Ryan, chair, House Budget Committee

    Lauren Victoria Burke  /  AP

    A native of Janesville, Wisc., Budget Committee chairman Ryan has long been his party’s most articulate spokesman on spending. If Republicans really intend to cut spending, Ryan can tell them exactly where and how to do it. But Ryan’s plan for a voucher system to replace the open-ended Medicare entitlement makes some Republicans skittish. In the 2008 election, President Obama carried Ryan’s congressional district with 51 percent of the vote.

  • Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine

    Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images

    Snowe is one of the decisive senators in the center whose vote often tells if a bill or amendment will pass. She is up for re-election in 2012. Obama won her state in 2008 with 58 percent of the vote. She opposed the Obama administration by voting against the DREAM Act to grant legal residency to children of illegal immigrants. She voted for the administration’s arms control treaty with Russia and for repealing the military “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay service members.

  • Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D.

    Harry Hamburg  /  AP

    South Dakota cattle rancher and ex-state legislator Kristi Noem is one of two members of the class of 2010 who’ll be part of the House GOP leadership. She defeated Democrat Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, getting 48 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Delivering the weekly address for her party on Dec. 11, Noem twice used the word “humble,” calling herself "part of a new majority committed to being humble, more modest ... We are committed to making sure Washington humbles itself ...” Noem was a college student when her father was killed in an accident on the family farm. “I was 22-years old, we got hit pretty hard with estate taxes at that point in time, and I really started to recognize the impact that government and taxes had on small businesses and in an agricultural state like South Dakota,” she told an interviewer.

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