- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Saying he simply needed a break, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs on Wednesday added his name to a growing list of West Wing staff departures as President Obama restocks the team that will help him deal with newly resurgent congressional Republicans and prepare for a 2012 re-election bid.

Mr. Gibbs said he will step down in early February after serving for nearly seven years as a spokesman for Mr. Obama, having joined the president’s staff when Mr. Obama was the Democratic candidate for Senate in Illinois. He then will assume the role of an outside political adviser to his longtime boss.

Mr. Gibbs‘ announcement follows the recent and pending departures of other key Obama aides, including former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, National Security Adviser Gen. James L. Jones, National Economic Council Chairman Lawrence H. Summers and senior political adviser David Axelrod.

Just hours after Mr. Gibbs confirmed his departure, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker revealed he was stepping down as head of the board Mr. Obama created to advise him on the economic recovery, according to Reuters news agency.

Although Mr. Gibbs described his decision to step down halfway into the term as part of the “natural cycle” of any administration, he acknowledged that his leaving, coupled with the departures of key economic advisers and Mr. Obama’s chief of staff, represents a significant shakeup.

“In many ways, this is a pretty major retooling. But, again, part of this is based on the fact that there are a lot of us who just feel like we need a little bit of a break,” he said. “A decent amount of what you’ve seen is the natural attrition of an administration.”

Mr. Gibbs, known for his pastel ties and willingness to go toe to toe with journalists at daily press briefings, said a replacement will be named before his last day, sometime in early February. He told reporters his decision had nothing to do with the heavy losses suffered by Democrats in November’s midterm elections but, rather, reflected a desire to “recharge” and take a vacation without his BlackBerry.

In a statement, Mr. Obama described the 39-year-old Alabama native as “a close friend, one of my closest advisers and an effective advocate from the podium for what this administration has been doing to move America forward.”

“I think it’s natural for him to want to step back, reflect and retool. That brings up some challenges and opportunities for the White House — but it doesn’t change the important role that Robert will continue to play on our team,” he said.

Among those mentioned as possible replacements: Mr. Gibbs‘ deputy Bill Burton and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s spokesman Jay Carney.

The slew of vacancies has fueled an active Washington rumor mill over who will fill the jobs for the rest of Mr. Obama’s first term.

Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign manager, David Plouffe, will start at the White House next week as a senior political adviser, eventually assuming the role played by Mr. Axelrod when he officially leaves in the coming months.

The president is said to be leaning toward selecting William Daley, a former Cabinet official in the Clinton White House and an executive at JPMorgan Chase, as a permanent replacement for Mr. Emanuel as chief of staff. Like the president and much of his inner circle, Mr. Daley has strong Chicago ties; he is the brother of retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Fueling the speculation, administration officials confirmed Wednesday that William Daley had made an unannounced visit to the White House, presumably to discuss the chief of staff’s job.

Mr. Obama’s inner circle has been criticized for being too insular, and some in Mr. Obama’s party welcomed the change in personnel.

On Wednesday, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a former Democratic Party chairman and leader of its liberal wing, laid into Mr. Obama for what he called an overreliance on the same circle of longtime advisers and Beltway insiders, saying the president needed to overhaul his staff in order to deliver on his campaign pledge to change the way Washington works.

“The president hired a senior staff with people with 20-year careers in Washington. If you want to change Washington, you can’t hire people who benefited from the old system to change it to the new system,” Mr. Dean told reporters at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor.

Those advisers often treated the president’s progressive supporters with “contempt,” contended Mr. Dean, who said he would support Mr. Daley as Mr. Obama’s top aide despite his previous stint in Washington because “he’s a grown-up.”

“He knows Washington, but he is not of Washington. That’s incredibly important,” Mr. Dean said. “It will be a mutual atmosphere of respect, and that will be a huge tone change.”

Mr. Gibbs himself became the target of progressive ire last summer when he bemoaned the “professional left” for not giving Mr. Obama enough credit in delivering on his campaign promises to overhaul the nation’s health care and financial systems.

• Sean Lengell contributed to this article.