Obama's Once-Disciplined Team Springs Leaks During Transition
Friday, November 21, 2008
Barack Obama was famously able to impose discipline and control over his presidential campaign, but it didn't take long for him to discover that running a transition is something quite different.
Top aides to the president-elect had hoped to take a methodical approach to selecting and unveiling their new team, starting with the announcements of top national security and economic players shortly after Thanksgiving. But leaks and rumors have disrupted that plan, suggesting that the "no-drama Obama" mantra famously repeated by his staff may not be as operational in Washington as it was at campaign headquarters in Chicago.
Obama has not officially announced any Cabinet appointments, but transition officials have reluctantly confirmed that former senator Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) will be nominated as secretary of health and human services, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano is the top choice for the Department of Homeland Security, and Eric H. Holder Jr. is likely to be the attorney general pick.
Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) is on track to be nominated for the job of secretary of state after Thanksgiving, transition aides said. And late last night, Obama aides were confronted with unconfirmed talk that retired Gen. James L. Jones could be tapped for national security adviser.
In the case of Chicago billionaire Penny Pritzker, leaks that she would probably be tapped for a Cabinet job proved premature. An architect of Obama's record-shattering campaign fundraising operation, Pritzker emerged as the leading choice to run the Commerce Department. Sources close to the Hyatt hotel heiress said she was seriously interested, and Obama allies said the president-elect, who considers Pritzker a close friend and a stellar manager, was eager to make an offer.
But as her name began to circulate, sources close to the campaign said Pritzker came to realize that she could not extract herself from the vast and complex business obligations that make her one of the country's wealthiest individuals. Yesterday afternoon, Pritzker issued a statement taking herself out of contention.
"Speculation has grown that I am a candidate for Secretary of Commerce. I am not," Pritzker said. "I think I can best serve our nation in my current capacity: building businesses, creating jobs and working to strengthen our economy."
For nearly two years, Obama's political inner circle took great pride in the dearth of public reports about personnel moves, fundraising numbers and staff friction inside his campaign. When Obama announced his choice of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) as his running mate, he did it via a text message to supporters. When the campaign announced that Pritzker, finance director Julianna Smoot and her team had raised $150 million in September, it came in an e-mail from reclusive campaign manager David Plouffe.
That control has all but dissolved in the leak-centric world of Washington. Every day since Nov. 4, the president-elect's transition staff has alerted reporters of planned activities for Obama and Biden. And invariably, those events have been more or less ignored in favor of the latest leak of a selection for the Cabinet or White House staff.
"There is nothing they can do about it -- vetting and FBI background checks require a lot of calls, and that leads to leaks," explained Steve Elmendorf, a longtime aide to former House minority leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and now a lobbyist in Washington.
And unlike in a campaign, there is now simply more information to disseminate and more outlets chasing the ever-elusive scoop. "It's the era of the Internet; what do you expect?" joked a former Clinton White House senior adviser who is not involved in the transition process.
Although the pace of disclosures may be quicker than Obama had planned, his choices are for the most part neither risky nor unexpected. The administration that is taking shape is an amalgam of longtime allies and veteran Washington insiders, demonstrating not only Obama's regard for loyalty but also his practical streak. So far, they have all been well received, at least among Democrats.
By considering Napolitano to run the Department of Homeland Security, Obama is rewarding one of his earliest high-profile supporters, as well as enlisting a border-state governor with law enforcement credentials to oversee a sprawling agency with jurisdiction over immigration policy and domestic security.
Yesterday, Napolitano won the early endorsement of Sen. John McCain, the defeated Republican presidential candidate and a fellow Arizonan, who called for her "rapid confirmation." It was not lost on political observers that if she becomes the next homeland security chief, a strong possible challenger to McCain's 2010 reelection bid will be effectively sidelined.
Daschle, Obama's choice for Health and Human Services, endorsed Obama early in the primary season, and the former Senate majority leader has a command of the legislative process that could make or break Obama's ambitious health-care goals. And in Clinton, Obama sees not just a hard-nosed negotiator with a strong grasp of details but also a powerful symbol of his desire to find the best person for the job regardless of past political entanglements.
"Obama is big," said Andy Grossman, a veteran party strategist. "And we need big. I think his willingness to hire people who can serve him well because they understand the levers of power shows a tremendous discipline and comfort with his own ego."
Democrats mindful of former president Bill Clinton's plodding 1992 transition are pleased with the rapid pace.
"He is finding people he knows and trusts but who also have a demonstrated ability to do what he needs of them in those slots," said Matt Bennett, a former adviser in the Clinton White House. "Daschle is a skilled legislative tactician who can move health care; Napolitano understands immigration and how to run a large, unruly bureaucracy; [Hillary Clinton] can be a force-multiplier, bringing her celebrity and skill to the world stage."
Obama aides insist a nomination is certain only when it is officially announced. In the case of Holder, for example, they will say only that he is a top candidate for the attorney general post.
The caution is in part an effort to avoid problems experienced by Bill Clinton, who, after waiting six weeks to announce any Cabinet or senior staff appointments, faced a pair of embarrassing withdrawals when his first two picks for attorney general -- Zoe E. Baird and Kimba M. Wood -- stepped aside because of vetting issues.
Seeking to avoid similar episodes, Obama is asking potential appointees to fill out a 63-page questionnaire aimed at unearthing any foible, no matter how personal or seemingly trivial, that could derail a nomination or reflect poorly on the incoming president.
Staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this report.