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Early Transition Decisions to Shape Obama Presidency

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Barack Obama will take office in 76 days, but the moves he begins making today will immediately begin to define his presidency.

He is expected to name a White House chief of staff in the next day or two, and the clear front-runner is Rep. Rahm Emanuel, his longtime friend and ally from Chicago. He will officially begin a transition operation under the direction of another Clinton administration official, former White House chief of staff John D. Podesta. Those and other prominent Democrats, many of them veterans of his two-year quest for the presidency, will be charged with assembling an administration that draws from the innovations of Obama's campaign and sets in motion a system to deliver on the promises that got him elected.

One Obama source familiar with the transition process said the goal is to move "quickly, but not hastily." The approach to appointments and other senior hires will be comprehensive, as opposed to ad hoc, which may mean that Obama will not name, say, a Treasury secretary right away but will continue to rely in the short term on his current economic advisory team. A game plan for moving forward will become clear by Friday, Obama sources said, and Cabinet announcements may start to trickle out next week.

Obama is expected to continue operating out of Chicago for most of the transition. The process of vetting and assembling a Cabinet began well before yesterday's election, with staff members hinting at the potential for several "outside the box" picks for top jobs. Aides will move quickly to begin monitoring the government's various departments and agencies, obtain the necessary security clearances, and keep a close eye on any last-minute attempts by current administration officials to leave a mark on policy after President Bush's term ends.

But Obama's effort to create a smooth transition that puts his stamp on government will face major tests almost immediately. Congress will convene for a lame-duck session on Nov. 17, and the junior senator from Illinois will have to decide whether to become immersed in its proceedings or keep his distance, as some allies are advising.

The White House will hold an economic summit on Nov. 15 that 20 world leaders will attend; Obama, who called for such a meeting in September, has been invited to participate. His advisers are also debating whether to ask Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to stay on, to allow planning for a withdrawal from Iraq to begin as soon as possible. A U.N. conference on global warming will be held in Poland in December, an ideal stage for Obama, or a high-profile surrogate such as former vice president Al Gore, to declare that the era of Bush energy policies are over.

Obama remains largely a stranger to the vast federal bureaucracy and will be besieged by Washington insiders he barely knows -- and whose loyalties are untested -- seeking positions of influence.

"He was extremely good at running for office, but there's no way to predict what comes next," said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar with the Brookings Institution. "There's no school for presidents. A lot of this is on-the-job training, and we take a lot on faith."

Obama's aides hope his transition operation will be a sharp contrast with the chaotic operation that President-elect Bill Clinton ran in 1992. Clinton did not pick anyone, either for a Cabinet or White House position, until the sixth week of his transition, and he named much of his top White House staff on Jan. 15, just five days before his inauguration -- far too late for them to learn the contours of the jobs they were about to undertake.

Avoiding the same mistakes is one reason Obama is eager to have the hard-nosed Emanuel become the White House gatekeeper. (Podesta, former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle and ex-commerce secretary William M. Daley remain other possibilities if Emanuel unexpectedly says no.) The Chicago lawmaker, elected in 2002, moved rapidly up the House leadership ladder and aspires to become speaker. Obama would be asking Emanuel to give up that ambition because he believes that his tenure in the Clinton White House, combined with his Capitol Hill experience, make him uniquely qualified for the job, sources close to Obama said. Emanuel has wrestled in recent days over whether to take the job, sources close to him said.

The transition process started quietly about 10 weeks ago, when Obama asked Podesta to begin a full-scale review of the federal government and to compile lists of potential hires. Podesta, who now runs the Center for American Progress (CAP), a progressive think tank, created a transition board that included Clinton administration alumni, CAP colleagues and several of Obama's outside advisers. Obama has participated little in this exercise beyond urging aides to look at all sorts of candidates, including Republicans (retiring Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is most often mentioned) and individuals from the business community.

Among those under consideration who would mark a departure from the tradition of rewarding loyalists and party leaders include New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein for education secretary and retired Marine Corps commandant Jim Jones for national security adviser. Both are viewed as non-ideological and have the potential to rankle liberal Democrats. Obama officials said they would look at innovative firms such as Google for potential applicants. One prospect for a top administration job, possibly at the Office of Management and Budget, who would test the Washington establishment is Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), a crusader for government reform who annually publishes a dire alternative report on the federal budget.

The Obama shortlist includes plenty of traditional names: former Treasury secretaries Lawrence H. Summers or Robert E. Rubin could be tapped for that post again. Timothy F. Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, is another possibility. Alternatives to Jones include Susan Rice and James B. Steinberg, Obama advisers who also served under Clinton. Eric H. Holder Jr., another Clinton veteran and Obama friend, is a candidate for attorney general, as is Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. Other prominent women likely to be approached for Cabinet posts include Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm.

Obama will also have to decide what roles many of his top political aides might play in the White House, such as campaign manager David Plouffe, chief strategist David Axelrod, and Robert Gibbs and Dan Pfeiffer, who led his communications team. Plouffe, for one, has announced internally that he will return to private life, at least for the time being.

While Obama contemplates how to fill the top jobs, Podesta and his team will size up the bureaucracies these individuals would inherit.

One group, led by Donald Gips, former domestic policy adviser to Gore, and Melody Barnes, a CAP senior executive, is overseeing an agency-by-agency review that will be conducted on-site by small teams. Their aim is to identify budget issues, administrative problems and policy priorities, and their findings will be presented in written reports to every Obama Cabinet secretary and administrator.

Separate policy working groups are evaluating Obama campaign promises in the context of current budget realities. One team, chaired by Steinberg and including Rice and Harvard University professor Sarah Sewall, is evaluating international scenarios that Obama may confront.

Former Treasury official Michael Froman and CAP senior executive Cassandra Q. Butts, both Obama friends from Harvard Law School, are examining personnel issues related to sub-Cabinet positions, including diversity, something Obama and his team are determined to provide. Butts, who is a lawyer, is also vetting potential candidates for ethical conflicts.

Now that the transition is an official government operation, the structure is expected to shift to a three-member board consisting of Podesta, who would oversee the ongoing agency-review process; Pete Rouse, Obama's Senate chief of staff and senior campaign adviser, who would help the new chief of staff to organize the White House; and Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago friend who was also on the campaign team, who will act as conduit to Obama, among other tasks.

While that process unfolds, Obama will rely on advisory groups that have guided him through the campaign. Former Treasury secretaries Rubin and Summers, billionaire investor Warren Buffett, former Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker and others are helping Obama navigate the nation's economic crisis and coordinate with Bush officials on further government interventions. A similar group will guide him on foreign policy. Obama gathered some of its members in Richmond shortly before the election to discuss the national security implications of the economic situation.

The transition team is exploring new approaches to communications that could undercut West Wing traditions such as the daily briefings to reporters, including making more announcements over the Internet to ensure that information reaches not only journalists but the millions of individuals who enlisted in Obama's campaign and consider themselves invested in his presidency.

Obama is also expected to follow through on his pledge to restrict the role of lobbyists in his administration. Campaign lawyer Robert F. Bauer, a potential White House counsel, has been at work on a code of conduct. Said one senior Obama adviser: "People are going to be surprised at how strict we are."

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