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Obama Transition Teams Scrutinizing Federal Agencies

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By Shailagh Murray and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Wearing yellow badges and traveling in groups of 10 or more, agency review teams for President-elect Barack Obama have swarmed into dozens of government offices, from the Pentagon to the National Council on Disability.

With pointed questions and clear ground rules, they are dissecting agency initiatives, poring over budgets and unearthing documents that may prove crucial as a new Democratic president assumes control. Their job is to minimize the natural tension between incoming and outgoing administrations, but their work also is creating anxiety among some Bush administration officials as the teams rigorously examine programs and policies.

Lisa Brown, who served as counsel to Vice President Al Gore and is helping manage the reviews, said typical questions include: "Which is the division that has really run amok? Or that has run out of money? If someone is confirmed, what's going to be on their desk from Day One? What are the main things that need to happen, vis-a-vis Obama's priorities?"

Every presidential changeover includes some type of review of the federal landscape, but some have succeeded more than others, experts say. Obama's teams -- 135 people divided into 10 groups, along with a list of other advisers -- started earlier than most, gearing up months before Election Day with preliminary planning, and will work until mid-December preparing reports to guide the White House, Cabinet members and other senior officials.

The team members include Democratic Party loyalists jockeying for senior administration jobs and subject experts in areas ranging from military systems to Medicare policy.

The Obama teams say they have benefited from a commitment by the Bush White House to cooperate as fully as possible to ease the shift.

"President Bush initiated preparations for the transition earlier, and with more extensive planning, than has ever been done before," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "We've also benefited from new legal authorities that allowed for better preparation of the transition teams. As we're at war, defending the nation against terrorist threats, and addressing a global financial crisis, it's more critical than ever that we have a successful transition."

John D. Podesta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff and co-chairman of the Obama transition, said the Obama teams have been dispatched with "clear roles and missions." In assembling the study groups, Podesta drew heavily from the Clinton administration, academia and think tanks such as his own, the Center for American Progress. Many team members were informal advisers to Obama throughout the campaign -- such as Sarah Sewall, a Harvard University human rights specialist who is a leader of the national security team.

Many chosen for the teams come with high-level, firsthand knowledge of certain agencies.

"They were part of that culture; they understand the political issues as well as the bureaucratic issues," said Melody C. Barnes, Obama's incoming Domestic Policy Council director, who is helping with the agency reviews.

Some teams parachuted in at the top. At the State Department, Obama team leaders Tom Donilon and Wendy R. Sherman met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. At the Pentagon, transition team members John White and Michèle A. Flournoy dropped by the offices of four senior officials and arranged for further interviews over the coming days. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates named a transition leader, Robert Rangel, to work with the group, even though Gates is slated to continue in his job when Obama takes office.

A typical approach has been playing out at the Environmental Protection Agency, where the Obama team is led by Lisa Jackson, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and Robert Sussman, a former Clinton official and now a lawyer and fellow at the Center for American Progress. Both are considered front-runners for senior administration jobs (Jackson as EPA administrator, Sussman as a top EPA deputy).


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