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Obama Team Moves to Keep Its Distance From Lobbyists

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Barack Obama campaigned as an anti-Washington candidate, and the leader of his presidential transition team made it clear that the president-elect would seek to build on that theme over the next two months.

His transition chief, John D. Podesta, announced a set of broad regulations yesterday that restrict how federal lobbyists can participate in Obama's transition, saying the move is designed to ensure "that the undue influence of Washington lobbyists and the revolving door of Washington ceases to exist."

The transition team will not allow lobbyists to work in the subject areas in which they have previously lobbied, Podesta said. And if someone becomes a lobbyist after working on the transition, that person will be prohibited from lobbying the administration for 12 months on matters on which he or she worked.

"I've heard the other complaint, which is we're leaving all these experts on the side. . . . We're leaving all the people who know everything out in the cold," Podesta said. "And so be it." He said a similar ban was likely to be in effect for the actual administration, including an extension of the lobbyist ban to two years.

Podesta also made clear that Obama intends to remain largely absent from the nation's capital over the next 70 days, part of a conscious effort to maintain a low profile during the final weeks of the Bush administration despite intense media interest in his every move.

Obama plans to announce decisions about his Cabinet secretaries from Chicago rather than inside the Beltway, Podesta indicated, and will remain there this weekend as leaders from around the world arrive in Washington for an economic summit hosted by President Bush.

"The president-elect will not be meeting with the leaders who are coming to Washington. He will be in Chicago," Podesta told reporters yesterday afternoon. "And he will not be having any meetings with any of the leaders who are coming to the G-20, in Chicago or in any other place."

In his first briefing, Podesta made it clear that Obama will be mostly out of sight during the presidential transition. But his staff is quickly establishing a presence in the nation's capital in advance of his Jan. 20 inauguration. Obama's transition team will employ roughly 450 people, divided between offices in downtown Washington and a federal building in Chicago, at a cost of about $12 million, less than half of which will be underwritten by taxpayers.

The rest will be raised privately, Podesta said, but without the help of Washington lobbyists, corporations or political action committees. The use of funds from such entities to underwrite presidential transitions has been routine since the Reagan years. But Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, said private fundraising for White House transitions can raise serious ethical concerns if handled poorly by an incoming administration.

"This is exactly the sort of vehicle that is ripe for abuse and undermines the public's confidence on decisions being made about both policy and personnel," Fitton said.

Podesta said the transition team would not only limit individual contributions to $5,000 but also disclose the names of all donors at the end of every month. "So you'll see our contributions . . . to the transition prior to the inauguration, yes," Podesta said.

Obama is also assembling "agency review teams" to move into the Washington office buildings that house federal agencies. Their mandate, Podesta said, will be to gather information that Obama and his eventual Cabinet secretaries can use during confirmation hearings and to formulate policy once in office.

Members of the review teams will be announced by the end of the week, and their names will be posted on Obama's transition Web site, Change.gov, as they are given security clearances to begin their work.

Obama moved rapidly last week to name his chief of staff, plucking Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois from Congress less than two days after winning election. No other major personnel or Cabinet announcements are expected until next week, at the earliest. But aides said Obama still intends to move faster than most of his predecessors, with several top Cabinet posts filled quickly, perhaps by the end of the month. The first Cabinet announcements are widely anticipated to include the Treasury and defense secretaries.

Podesta said no president other than George H.W. Bush had announced a Cabinet choice before December. And he said prior presidents have seen a maximum of 24 members of their Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials confirmed by the end of March, a number he called "simply inadequate" for a country that is facing major economic and foreign policy challenges.

"This is a process that will require the cooperation of both parties in Congress, and we hope and expect to receive that," Podesta said. "The country's experiencing two wars. We have ongoing threat from al-Qaeda. We've got a financial crisis that we need to cope with, and we've got to get the economy moving again. So, we intend to move with all due speed, and we hope that the Senate will, as well."

Podesta refused to speculate about people Obama might pick for key positions. Asked about Obama's view of Bush's defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, who is the focus of intense speculation about whether he will remain in his post under Obama, Podesta said only that Obama "has great respect for Secretary Gates, but beyond that I think that, you know, he intends to engage, as I suggested, across the board with the agencies."

He also declined to say which Bush-era executive orders Obama plans to overturn once he takes office. "When we have announcements about specific executive orders, we'll make those," he said.

Obama's relatively low profile is striking in part because of the candidate-centered campaign he ran, using the force of his personality to win over voters. The financial crisis heightened expectations that he would move quickly to try to influence the country's economic policies.

The day before the election, Obama said in Jacksonville, Fla., that "tomorrow, you can turn the page on policies that have put the greed and irresponsibility of Wall Street before the hard work and sacrifice of folks on Main Street."

But once he was elected, Obama turned cautious. Friday, in his first news conference, the president-elect made it clear that he would not presume anything until Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.

Podesta reinforced that view at yesterday's news conference. "The president-elect will respect the fact that we have one president at a time," he said.

Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.

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