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Obama may announce staff moves as early as Friday

By Ed Henry, CNN Senior White House Correspondent
  • The chief of staff race is down to two candidates
  • Press Secretary Robert Gibbs is likely leaving
  • Sources say Obama wants to shore up the staff changes quickly
  • The vice president's chief of staff is also leaving

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama has narrowed the list of candidates for White House chief of staff down to two -- current interim boss Pete Rouse and former Clinton Commerce Secretary William Daley -- according to two senior Democratic sources close to the process.

The president wants to move quickly on naming the next full time chief of staff, the sources said, noting that a slew of staff moves could be announced as early as Friday.

The two Democratic sources told CNN that the president would like to get the uncertainty about his long-term chief of staff sorted out within the next week as part of a broader reshuffling that will also likely include the departure of Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.

Several Democratic sources added that the president is likely to name Gene Sperling, a former Clinton administration official who is now a counselor at the Treasury Department, to replace Larry Summers as the head of the National Economic Council. One senior Democrat said it is "more or less done" that Sperling will get the post over former Clinton official Roger Altman, although it has not been made official yet.

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After mulling all his options during the long holiday break in Hawaii, Obama is now privately feeling like he needs to move quickly to flesh out the broader reorganization within the White House in order to gear up for the Republican House that takes power on Wednesday, several senior Democratic sources said. He also wants his new team in place so he can focus on the upcoming State of the Union address.

The senior Democratic sources said Gibbs could land another senior post inside the White House but is more likely now to move to the private sector and become a spokesman and strategist for Obama on the outside. In that role, they said, he would shuttle back and forth between Washington and the eventual re-election campaign office in Chicago, freeing him up to focus more on politics and help the president from the outside.

The two leading contenders to replace Gibbs are his current deputy Bill Burton, an Obama loyalist who is popular within the administration for his long tenure dating back to his distinguished service in Chicago for the 2008 campaign, and Jay Carney, a former journalist who is now the well-respected communications director for Vice President Joe Biden. Some Obama insiders see Carney as a more seasoned replacement for Gibbs.

"That's a choice that will need to be made quickly," one senior Democratic source said of the battle between Burton and Carney, in reference to the fact that there is a growing sense inside the White House that Gibbs' departure and the other staff moves are imminent.

The two senior Democratic sources said that while Obama has been holding extensive private conversations with other prominent Democrats -- including former Sen.Tom Daschle and former Clinton chiefs of staff Leon Panetta and John Podesta -- all of those insiders have made clear to the President that they do not want to be considered for the chief of staff role. Instead, they are helping the president sort through how he wants his staff positioned for the new power dynamic on Capitol Hill.

Panetta is already serving the Obama administration as CIA director, and Podesta is president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, a group he founded to promote progressive policy ideas. and are instead helping Obama in various ways sort through how he wants to staff off for the new power dynamic on Capitol Hill.

These Democratic sources stressed that Daley has not been offered the chief of staff job, although they noted he had one face-to-face meeting with the president in December and has had at least one phone conversation with him. While Obama was seeking Daley's counsel on the broader realignment at the White House, it's clear that he was also sounding him out for the job.

The Democratic sources noted Daley was just remarried last summer and may not want to uproot from Chicago, where he runs midwest operations for JP Morgan Chase. But there is a general feeling among senior Obama advisers that Daley will take the post if it is offered.

"He's such a loyalist that if the president asks him he'd do it," one of the senior Democratic sources said.

A second senior Democratic source said that while Obama and Daley share Chicago roots, they are not nearly as close as Obama was with his previous chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who left to run for mayor of Chicago. That source said the decision on Daley would have happened sooner "but he and the president don't have much of a relationship" so it has taken time to figure out whether it would be a good match.

Contrary to some of the speculation that has suggested the job is Daley's to lose, one of the senior Democratic sources said flatly that Rouse is actually still the leading contender for the post.

"Pete can write his own ticket -- he can be (long-term) chief of staff or be a senior adviser" and make way for Daley.

The key hurdle now is Rouse sorting out whether he wants to stay on or if he thinks having a more prominent player like Daley would better help position Obama for the twin challenges of dealing with the Republican House and beginning to gear up for an uphill re-election battle given the continued economic difficulties in the country.

"It's still going to be Pete's if he wants it," said that senior Democratic source. "He's ambivalent -- he has told the president if there's a better way to do it, he's willing to step aside. But the president has made it clear to Pete it's his if he wants it."

The source noted that Rouse prefers to be a behind-the-scenes player who does not like to do media interviews or travel much "and is trying to assess, 'Am I the best person for the job?'"

The source assessed the chances of Rouse staying on as chief of staff as "50-50" right now because it is a close call for him on whether he wants to stay.

Biden also announced Tuesday that his current chief of staff and longtime adviser Ron Klain is leaving at the end of the month. Senior Democratic sources said Klain made the move to the private sector after it was clear he was no longer a candidate for White House chief of staff.

The sources said Klain's deputy, Alan Hoffman, is a contender to become Biden's chief of staff, but there will be other candidates as well.