Under Obama, the Envoy Convoy May Screech to a Halt

By Al Kamen
Thursday, November 6, 2008

You'd think everyone on the Obama team would be celebrating today. But you'd be wrong.

There is major agita among some key elements of President-elect Barack Obama's juggernaut. For example, the big-money types and "bundlers," the fundraisers who helped put together Obama's stunning financial advantage, are expecting their reward -- say a nice, cushy ambassadorship in Rome or Paris or London. (By tradition, about one-third of the nation's 190 ambassadors are political appointees. They're the ones who get the fine European postings.)

But the chatter is that they'd better not count on it. The traditional sale of most ambassadorships, so aptly carried on during the Bush administration, may not continue.

Early speculation is that Obama may be more inclined to follow the Clinton model and select people, often political types, with some foreign policy credentials or knowledge of a country's language or culture. Clinton generally picked the high-rollers for smaller -- albeit quite lovely -- places such as Prague or Vienna. So you may have to forget about the Via Veneto.

So Far, So Good

It's too early to predict whether the Obama transition can best the extraordinary effort of the Bush II team eight years ago as it grappled with a sharply truncated, 37-day transition. But the announcement yesterday of the effort's leaders -- barely half a day after Obama's victory speech -- indicates the Obamanians are on top of their game.

In contrast, the Clinton transition team, after constantly reshuffling the deck, finally announced its "cluster coordinators" on Nov. 25, 1992, the day before Thanksgiving. Obama's folks announced their co-chairs, advisory board and "transition senior staff" with no known fuss and threw in the offer to Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) to be chief of staff.

There has been some grumbling of late that too many Clinton retreads are populating the Obama transition staff, but there appears to be only one Clinton "coordinator," former transportation secretary Federico Peña, who repeats as an Obama co-chair.

New Order in the Courts

Obama's got a lot on his plate, but look for the former law professor to quickly put his mark on the federal judiciary.

He's got about 15 appeals court seats to fill and another 36 openings at the district court level, not to mention maybe three Supreme Court justices said to be ready to retire during his first term. Look for quick submission of nominees to the Senate, where Democrats will enjoy expanded control.

"Certainly in the initial honeymoon phase, I think President-elect Obama will have a lot of room to maneuver with his appointments," said Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. The filibusters may come later.

Speculation about possible Obama appointments to the Supreme Court has been rampant. The possibilities include Diane P. Wood, a federal appeals court judge in the 7th Circuit and on the faculty at University of Chicago, where Obama once taught; Elena Kagan, dean of Harvard Law School; appeals court judge Sonia Sotomayor; and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.

But Obama's most likely target right off the bat will be the Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond, long a bastion for conservative legal theories. By filling the four vacancies on the 15-judge bench, Obama could install a Democratic majority on that court.

Obama could expand his reach further if Congress passes a bill that adds new positions on the circuit court bench, which has not expanded since 1991, despite a 50 percent increase in the number of appellate filings in that time.

Already, liberal advocates, who have been in the political wilderness for eight years, are scurrying to prepare lists of potential nominees for appellate judgeships. "There's a pretty aggressive effort to try to identify candidates," said Nan Aron, president of the Alliance for Justice.

Filling Slots

With Emanuel tapped for chief of staff, and Pete Rouse, Obama's Senate chief of staff, named as a co-chair of the transition, the question arises: whither former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle? Daschle was a campaign co-chair and among the first Obama endorsers -- in February 2007.

The chatter is that the most likely spot is to the Cabinet, as head of the Department of Health and Human Services. Daschle, who lost his Senate seat in 2004, has been actively involved in health-care policy questions.

Word is some seriously heavy hitters have been recruited to focus on plans for various agencies. Mortimer L. Downey, who served as No. 2 in the Department of Transportation for eight years under Clinton, is expected to take a lead role in transition planning for the department, according to a person close to the process. Downey served as the deputy in the department under both Rodney Slater and Peña.

Rand Beers, a Foreign Service officer who handled intelligence, counterterrorism and peacekeeping issues on the National Security Council and was later assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, (the bureau also known as drugs 'n' thugs), is working the Homeland Security Department's transition portfolio.

Moving On

Julie L. Myers, head of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, has announced she's leaving Homeland Security as of Nov. 15. No word on plans.

With Philip Rucker

© 2008 The Washington Post Company