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A Quiet Departure for Obama’s Top Lobbyist

The White House/Getty Images

Even on his way out the door, White House Legislative Affairs Director Phil Schiliro still won’t take credit for his role in making the 111th Congress one of the most productive in decades.

Schiliro, the quiet force behind President Barack Obama’s strategy for working with Capitol Hill, will point to just about everyone else on his team of 20 as the reason for the president’s successful legislative run over the past two years.

But the former chief of staff to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) concedes he did one thing right as he oversaw negotiations between the White House and Congressional leaders on dozens of major initiatives, the least of which included health care reform, a financial regulatory overhaul and an economic stimulus.

“I didn’t mess it up,” he said.

Lost in this week’s news about Egypt and Obama’s budget recommendation was the fact that Schiliro stepped down from his post as the top White House liaison.

Not that he’ll be going far: He’s moving to another office 20 feet away, where next week he’ll begin his less defined job as a senior adviser to Obama. Schiliro said he was ready for a change after his “pretty intense job” of running the legislative affairs shop, though he said he wasn’t leaving because of burnout.

“It was a great two years. Most people who worked in Congressional affairs who have the job I had do it for two years or a little bit less,” he said. “It seemed like a good time to make a change.”

Schiliro can point to victories during his time in the legislative affairs shop — the biggest he said was averting an economic collapse in early 2009 — but he will clarify that none is his alone. They are “the president’s successes” and “the team’s successes,” he said.

And Schiliro has consistently steered clear of the press throughout his White House run because, he said, he didn’t want any focus on himself while his team was working to get things done.

“Interviews don’t advance what the president’s agenda is,” he said.

But his value at the White House is clear: When Schiliro initially made it known that he planned to vacate his post at the end of the last Congress, White House Chief of Staff William Daley stepped in and persuaded him to stay on longer amid a major staff restructuring. Daley was among the changes; he recently replaced Rahm Emanuel.

“Phil has made extraordinary contributions to the president’s success, and I’ve asked him to slow his departure in order to lend his wise counsel and guidance in the transition period ahead,” Daley wrote in an e-mail to White House staff last month.

And Schiliro’s top deputies have described him as “a legislative strategic genius” and “the fulcrum” that helped translate Obama’s top priorities into a practical plan of action for Members.

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