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Yes, We Can . . . at a Time to Be Announced

On Monday, wonk-turned-rock-star John Podesta, left, joined Bush Chief of Staff Josh Bolten at the White House.
On Monday, wonk-turned-rock-star John Podesta, left, joined Bush Chief of Staff Josh Bolten at the White House. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)
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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

You know Obama-mania has reached a new level when John Podesta becomes a rock star.

Until last week, Podesta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff and the founder of a liberal think tank called the Center for American Progress, was unlikely to be recognized on the street. But now he's Obama's transition chief. And when the Obama transition team announced that Podesta would give an operational update from transition headquarters, some of the best reporters in the business lined up for more than an hour on Sixth Street NW yesterday afternoon for a chance to hear him.

Two hundred seven reporters RSVP'd for the session at transition headquarters off Judiciary Square -- far more than the 84 chairs that could fit into the conference room. Secret Service agents and transition officials served as bouncers, consulting their lists as reporters begged their way in ("I RSVP'd! Last night!"). Podesta had to delay the start 20 minutes so all his groupies could get through security.

Finally, the rock star took the stage. The wiry former law school professor was in his concert gear: a gray flannel suit and white dress shirt unbuttoned rakishly to reveal the white crew-neck undershirt beneath. For nearly three-quarters of an hour, Podesta regaled his adoring fans with endless variations of his theme song: "When we have something to say about it, we'll let you know."

Please tell us, o great Podesta, whether President Obama will have an auto-industry czar. "When we have an announcement about that, we'll raise it."

And what about Obama's Cabinet announcements, great Podesta? "We'll make announcements when we're ready to make them."

The White House staff, pray tell? "Those will come out as they're ready to be announced."

And so it went. Executive orders? "When we have announcements about specific executive orders, we'll make those." Closing Gitmo? "When we have something to say about that, we'll say it as well." Obama's meetings with foreign leaders? "Well, we'll have an announcement about that, but not today."

Not since Ari Fleischer reigned in the White House Briefing Room has a man offered so many variations on the when-we-have-something-to-announce-we'll-announce-it dodge.

But there was a method to Podesta's mundaneness. The nation has impossible expectations about how quickly Obama will move to reshape the nation -- and as transition chief, one of Podesta's goals is to tamp those expectations down to realistic levels. A Diageo-Hotline poll found that 66 percent, including a third of Republicans, are confident Obama will bring "real change" to the capital.

But such lofty expectations will collide with Washington's rhythms, which explains why Obama has risked disappointing his starry-eyed supporters by hiring such Washington denizens as Rahm Emanuel and Podesta. The campaign may have been a time to say "Yes, we can," but now it's time to turn on the fuzz machine -- as Podesta did yesterday when asked what Obama and Bush discussed about an auto-industry rescue: "With respect to uh, what was discussed, uh, with, with the president, uh, uh, during, during their meeting, obviously it was a private meeting, they did talk uh, about, uh, the economic recovery program, they also discussed uh, the current situation with the auto industry. . . . And uh, and uh, you know Senator Obama's position on, with respect to the auto industry, I think he's suggested that, uh, that, uh, money that's been uh, that's been, uh, appropriated, through, uh, to, to do the retooling effort, uh, prior to the Congress, uh, having gone out of session but before the elections should be accelerated, and, and uh, and he's, he's hopeful that the government will look for, uh, additional uh, uh, authority to to deal with the short term uh, uh liquidity crisis."

Reporters grew restless. Transition aides thumbed BlackBerrys.

In fairness, Podesta wouldn't be the guy at the microphone in ordinary times. But these are not ordinary times. With the national media obsessed with news about the transition, and precious little information yet available, even the most mundane happenings continue to merit outsize attention.

In Chicago, the president-elect did little more in public yesterday than go to the gym and lay a Veterans Day wreath. That put yesterday's focus squarely on Podesta's off-camera briefing in Washington. Usually, Podesta -- "Skippy" to his Clinton White House colleagues -- has a wry wit and a sharp tongue.

But Skippy was, by design, smooth and creamy yesterday. He read from a cautious opening statement emphasizing the trite ("President-elect Obama wants to ensure that we hit the ground running") and the true ("We recognize that we have only one president at a time"). He announced restrictions on lobbyists participating in the transition ("the most far-reaching ethics rules of any transition in history").

Then came the questions -- and the fuzz. Where will personnel announcements be made? "You can anticipate that those most likely will take place in Chicago, although I won't guarantee that." Fundraising for the inauguration? "We'll have more to announce at a later point." New people at the FCC? "I'm not going to speculate." Will the same ethics rules apply to the administration? "We'll have more to say about that later."

Encore, anyone?


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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