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The Chicago Clan: The Chiefs of Staff in the Obama White House


  • This author will share all data and coding information with those wishing to replicate the study. This research was supported by the Department of Political Science and the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at The University of Akron. Its contents are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of The University of Akron or other institution.

Direct correspondence to David B. Cohen, Department of Political Science, The University of Akron, 201 Olin Hall, Akron, OH 44325-1904 〈〉.



This article examines the roles, responsibilities, and performance of the first two White House chiefs of staff during the Obama administration: Rahm Emanuel and William Daley.


Data are drawn and analyzed from academic and media resources, original interviews conducted by the authors with former staff in the Obama White House, and public documents.


Perhaps the most high-profile chief of staff in history, Rahm Emanuel was an important, but at times, ineffective advisor to, and proxy of, the president. He also served as a sturdy guardian, despite evident disagreement on policy priorities and strategies. His focus on shorter term tactics and his weakness as an honest broker negatively impacted the Obama administration. Emanuel's successor, William Daley, initially brought needed discipline and focus to a White House riven by factions. Daley, however, lasted only a year as he never fully adjusted to the demands of the job nor did he appear to fully appreciate the depth of the partisan polarization and hostility in Washington.


The Obama administration's first two chiefs of staff had to navigate a challenging environment in an administration filled with strong personalities and tested by events including the financial crisis and recession, passage of the health-care legislation, the 2010 midterm election debacle, the debt-ceiling crisis, and a number of foreign policy challenges in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan. Though very different in terms of personality, style, and the roles they emphasized during their tenures, both chiefs of staff were largely ineffective, thus diminishing the performance of the president and administration.