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William Daley: 'The Brains' Of A Political Family

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The buzz over William Daley, President Obama’s choice to be his next chief of staff, has been all about his business connections.

But long before he worked for JPMorgan Chase or the Chamber of Commerce, Daley was part of a Democratic political machine.

Political scientist Dick Simpson of the University of Illinois describes Daley as a “force behind the throne.”

“Bill Daley is the youngest of the Daley children [of late Chicago mayor] Richard J. Daley ... and he is usually considered to be sort of the brains of the family. He’s very capable,” Simpson says. “Often, he has been campaign manager, but not candidate.”

Daley’s father and brother each occupied the mayor’s office for about a quarter-century, but Bill, the youngest Daley, stepped onto the national political scene in the 1990s as commerce secretary to President Bill Clinton.

Negotiating With Republicans

Daley worked with a Republican-controlled Congress on ratifying the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. When working on a trade deal with China, he told the National Press Club, “I hope we make this more than the usual sort of inside-the-Beltway trade fight. Let’s take it to a higher level.”

That experience negotiating with Republicans may be helpful as he returns to a Washington where Republicans have gained power.

Even in his speeches as commerce secretary more than a decade ago, you can hear themes that remain true all these years later: Daley is connected to business, and he’s unafraid to speak his mind.

“When I meet the nation’s top business people, as I’ve had the honor over the last year, the bottom line and the truth is, I don’t see much diversity,” he said then. “The fact of the matter is, I see 9 out of 10 or beyond that are white males.”

Bringing Together Opposing Views

When Al Gore ran for president in 2000, Daley left his Cabinet post to chair the campaign.

On a rainy November night in Tennessee, it was Daley who made the dramatic announcement that Gore was withdrawing his concession.

“This race is simply too close to call,” he said. “And until ... the recount is concluded and the results in Florida become official, our campaign continues.”

Gore ultimately conceded and Daley went to the private sector.

For the last several years, he has worked at the financial giant JPMorgan Chase.

Douglas Elliott of the Brookings Institution, who was at JPMorgan for many years, says Daley was known for his ability to bridge opposing views and negotiate a solution -- a skill that will be vital in his new job.

“In the chief of staff’s position, you’re constantly trying to bring people together who have different viewpoints and, perhaps, different interests,” he says. “Ideally, you are able to reach conclusions in that group without having to bring the president into it.”

At the same time, some of the attributes that centrists view as strengths raise warning flags for activists on the left.

Liberals have been afraid that Obama bows too quickly to Republicans and to Wall Street. Now, Daley will need to deal with their feeling that his appointment confirms their fears. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit

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