By Anne E. Kornblut and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 7, 2008; A01
President-elect Barack Obama made the first appointment of his new administration yesterday, choosing Rep. Rahm Emanuel to serve as White House chief of staff when he takes office in January.
The selection of the fellow Illinois Democrat, a close Obama friend who embraces a sharp-edged approach to politics, could signal a rapid succession of appointments. Obama is expected to announce in the coming days that he will place two senior campaign aides, David Axelrod and Robert Gibbs, in key roles. Those early staffing decisions, coupled with reports that a number of prominent and established people are under consideration for Cabinet roles, suggests that Obama is focused more on projecting a reassuring image of continuity and competence than of quickly bringing wholesale change to a nation facing two wars and a severe economic downturn.
Obama plans to gather with a diverse team of economic experts today in Chicago and hold his first news conference since winning the presidency. On Monday, he and his wife are scheduled to meet with President Bush and the first lady at the White House, projecting a spirit of cooperation during a time of crisis.
The changeover in the executive branch is playing out across the board, as Obama's transition team moves into agency offices across Washington and the president-elect prepares to name his first Cabinet officials, something that could happen as early as next week. From the Environmental Protection Agency to the Energy Department to the Labor Department, Obama and his aides are seeking to establish a delicate balance as they try to select from a mix of policy experts and political operatives while also maintaining a solid representation of women and minorities and mixing in, as Obama pledged to do, some Republicans and independents.
Obama's choice of Emanuel -- a veteran of the Clinton years with a quick wit, a legendary temper and a strong grasp of policy -- signaled a potential mood shift away from the serene "no drama" ethos that defined his campaign. It also demonstrated Obama's eagerness to be accompanied by tested allies in navigating his first act in the White House.
"Though Rahm understands how to get things done in Washington, he still looks at the world from the perspective of his neighbors and constituents on the Northwest Side of Chicago, who work long and hard, and ask only that their government stand on their side and honor their values," Obama said in a statement.
Even before the announcement was official, Republicans pounced on the choice as a partisan pick from an incoming commander in chief who had promised to reach across party lines. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) described it as an "ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil and govern from the center." But other lawmakers, including some who have clashed with Emanuel at times, said they expected him to bring order and energy to the fledgling administration despite his rough edges.
"There's always, 'Oh, he's too this and he's too that.' He was also the political director for the Clintons, and he's going to put in 24-hour days, and he's going to be dedicated and committed," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.). Although Gutierrez described himself as "no fan of Rahm Emanuel," he said he believes that Emanuel "is going to be effective."
"His job isn't to win Mr. Congeniality, it's to get the legislative agenda passed," Gutierrez said. "They're looking for mechanics who can get this stuff done."
With the first indications of who will staff the Cabinet emerging and rumors running rampant inside the Beltway about potential selections, some hints about the kind of administration Obama will attempt to create are surfacing.
"What is beginning to take shape is a group of people that are unified in their purpose but diversified in their perspectives and views," said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). "All of them are rooted in pragmatism and reality in the context of accomplishing demonstratable results. He's going to have a group of people that from Day One all know what they're doing, are deeply committed to Senator Obama's philosophy, but isn't a 'yes' group, not at all."
Axelrod, who served as chief strategist for the Obama campaign, is expected to take on the role of senior adviser in the West Wing. He is one of the few aides not already anchored in Washington, and like Obama, he will have to move from Chicago. Gibbs is expected to become the White House press secretary, although neither appointment is official.
In Chicago yesterday, Obama began to take on the routine of a president-elect, returning calls to nine foreign leaders and meeting with top defense, national security and intelligence advisers. He also received his first intelligence briefing since winning election on Tuesday in a meeting with Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and Michael J. Morell, head of the CIA's intelligence directorate. Between now and his inauguration, Obama will receive regular briefings from senior intelligence officials.
Those around Obama remained tight-lipped about prospective Cabinet nominees, although advisers said he will move quickly to put his national security team in place. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates continues to be the most discussed possibility for a Bush administration holdover, although aides said he has given them no indication of any talks with Obama. Former Navy secretary Richard Danzig, a longtime Obama adviser, also remains among those mentioned for the post.
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) is said to be interested in becoming secretary of state, although former senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and others are also seen as possibilities. With Connecticut Democrat Christopher J. Dodd's announcement yesterday that he will remain as chairman of the Senate banking committee, Kerry is next in line to take over the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee from Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.
One high-profile and potentially controversial candidate for a Cabinet post to emerge yesterday was Robert F. Kennedy Jr. as a possible head of the Environmental Protection Agency, according to sources familiar with the transition process.
Kennedy founded and now chairs the Waterkeeper Alliance, which promotes water quality in the United States and abroad, while simultaneously serving as a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council and a professor at Pace University School of Law in White Plains, N.Y. He backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) in this year's Democratic presidential primaries, but his cousin Caroline Kennedy co-chaired Obama's vice presidential search team.
Obama is also considering several candidates with more nuts-and-bolts experience for the job, including former Sierra Club president Lisa Renstrom; California Air Resources Board chair Mary D. Nichols; Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty; and Massachusetts Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles.
On the domestic side, union leaders began pressing for a labor secretary in sync with their priorities. One prominent candidate to emerge was former House Democratic whip David E. Bonior (Mich.), chairman of American Rights at Work, a nonprofit that pushes for the rights of workers to form unions and for stricter enforcement of worker safety provisions. Bonior is also on the guest list for Obama's economic summit today, joining prominent business leaders such as Anne Mulcahy, the chairman and chief executive of Xerox; William H. Donaldson, the former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission under Bush; and Eric E. Schmidt, the chairman and chief executive of Google.
Policy teams met separately from those working on Cabinet nominations and other appointments, and sources said a virtual firewall was being erected between the two. In the national security sphere, advisers studied briefing books provided by the Bush administration and began to set priorities in keeping with both policy demands and Obama's agenda.
"The challenge is to both deal with the urgent -- Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan -- but also to keep your eye on the ball for the long term," said one foreign policy expert close to the process. "You have to do both at the same time, and a lot of it is about just getting up to speed. Obviously, there is no way from the outside that you can know all of what's happening on the inside."
By next week, the policy teams will have finished setting up shop in Washington, as will the transition teams that are moving directly into departments and agencies.
"The first phase is to engage with people inside the administration to get their version of what's happening," he said. "They've been dealing with it for the last eight years."
Staff writers Michael A. Fletcher, Alec MacGillis and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.