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Obama’s Call To The Bullpen

In major league baseball, most teams reserve a spot on their 25-man roster for a guy whose workday usually lasts only a few minutes: the left-handed relief specialist.

Most of the time, the left-handed specialist’s job is simply to be on call. But when a left-handed hitter comes up to bat in a crucial situation late in the game, the left-handed pitcher gets called to the mound. As soon as the batter is done, so is the pitcher.

William Daley, President Barack Obama’s newly selected chief of staff is, I think, a left-handed specialist. He's being brought into the game in the seventh inning to handle a very specific situation, and once his job is done, he’ll head back to the bench.

Daley’s job is to convince American businesses that the president can be trusted and that they should put their money into hiring new workers.

Whatever faults he may have, Obama is a skillful field manager. His first chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was a legislative heavy hitter. A former House member, Emanuel had the skills necessary to help the president leverage his political capital to move his agenda forward. Now, with the House in Republican hands, Obama’s chances of significant legislative progress aren’t very good, with or without help from his chief of staff. Meanwhile, unemployment rates are at reelection-threatening levels.

Obama needs someone capable of speaking directly to businesses to get them to increase hiring. Daley, a JPMorgan Chase & Co. executive and a board member for Boeing Co. and Abbott Laboratories, fits the bill. Daley was an economic adviser for Obama’s presidential campaign and a co-chairman of his transition team, but has been on the sidelines ever since.

In addition to bringing in Daley, Obama is also moving Gene Sperling, now a counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, into his inner circle by making him the Director of the National Economic Council.

Daley and Sperling’s joint task won’t be easy. So far, Obama’s attempts to win over the business community have been largely overshadowed by his history of using executives as targets and scapegoats. The president won few friends on Wall Street with his talk of “fat cats” and “speculators.” And his Justice Department’s attempt to prosecute Bear Stearns hedge fund managers for, basically, not predicting the global credit crisis showed that his administration was willing to translate nasty words into actions. Then, in the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the Obama administration put its disregard for businesses’ rights on full display with its decision to coerce BP into handing over $20 billion before anyone had time to determine the extent of the damages or BP’s responsibility for them.

But some in the business community seem willing to accept the president’s latest overture. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable have both endorsed Daley. Thomas Donohue, the Chamber’s president, said in a statement, “This is a strong appointment. We look forward to working with him to accelerate our recovery, grow the economy, create jobs, and tackle America’s global challenges.”

After a bruising two years of battling the president, first over the health care reform and then in a bid to help Republicans in the fall elections, the Chamber may be ready to make nice for awhile. I would not bet that most business executives, and especially small business owners, are necessarily ready to follow suit.

This is still the Obama administration, not the Emanuel administration or the Daley administration. This president has made it abundantly clear that he is no fan of business except to the extent it suits his purposes, which usually means generating tax revenue to finance the rest of the Obama agenda. At the moment, taxes are a lower priority — witness the president’s two-year tax cut deal with congressional Republicans — than getting people back to work before next year’s elections. But this situation is inherently temporary.

Daley is almost unique among Obama’s high-level players in having serious business experience. Team Obama does most of its recruiting in the government, academic and non-profit spheres in which the president is most comfortable. Daley’s appointment reflects a tactical maneuver rather than any change in philosophy.

The president and his team haven't changed. They’ve just brought in a guy who pitches from the other side of the plate for awhile.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Anyone Can Achieve Wealth,” and Chapter 19, “Assisting Aging Parents.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s previous book Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55.

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