With congressional elections looming next year, President Barack Obama named a veteran Democratic operative as his new chief liaison to Capitol Hill on Friday, following a long period of bitter partisan fights.
Deputy communications director Katie Fallon, formerly a senior Senate aide, will take over as legislative affairs director in January. She will replace Miguel Rodriguez, a former aide to Hillary Rodham Clinton, who says he is leaving to work in the private sector.
The change is a recognition that the White House needs to improve relations with lawmakers, after bruising battles over health care and the budget. Congressional Democrats are concerned that the troubled rollout of Obama's health care law could impact their chances in the 2014 midterms. Obama needs the lawmakers' help to get any of his agenda passed, after few accomplishments the first year of his second term.
With polls showing a majority of Americans disapprove of the way Obama is handling his job, outsiders have been calling on the president to make changes to a team made up largely of long-time confidants. Obama is bringing back his legislative director from his first term, Phil Schiliro, to help get his health care overhaul on track.
The most significant staff change was announced earlier this week, when the White House said prominent Democratic adviser John Podesta would be taking on the role of counselor to the president, replacing longtime Obama aide Pete Rouse. Additionally, White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler has announced she plans to leave in the spring, and other White House staffers may depart in the coming weeks. The rest of the senior staff is expected to stay largely intact.
White House chief of staff Denis McDonough has been leading an effort to repair relationships with lawmakers, including regular meetings with senators facing re-election. The White House said McDonough wanted to restructure the legislative affairs office to be more responsive to lawmaker concerns and better promote Obama's agenda, and proposed to the president that Fallon take on the task.
"Katie is whip smart, and fully understands the challenges and opportunities members of Congress face every day," McDonough said in a statement.
The White House said Obama and Fallon met recently to discuss challenges with the Hill and come up with a plan for addressing them, including strategy around stalled immigration reform and communication about the health care law's implementation.
Fallon has been deeply involved in the White House's public response to the health law's problems, creating "strike force" communications teams of Democrats from the House and Senate to coordinate the message of the day. She is a protΘgΘ of New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer and helped run his communications "war room" for the Senate Democratic leadership before she moved to the White House earlier this year.
Obama announced Fallon's new position in a written statement. "She has the deep expertise and strong relationships required to build on the progress we've made this year and advance my top priority: creating jobs and expanding broad-based growth and opportunity for every American," it said.