Change coming to the Obama White House

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.
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.Pete Souza
/ Source: NBC News and news services

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.

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.

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.

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.