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Obama Administration's Diplomacy Off to a Quiet Start

By Al Kamen
Thursday, December 18, 2008

Conversations this week with a senior diplomat from a major European country, a Middle Eastern ambassador and an Asian ambassador revealed a common angst: Barack Obama's folks aren't talking.

All three diplomats are getting constant messages from their home offices wondering what's going on, and all three said they feel worthless having to respond that they still can't get a meeting.

And we are not talking minor players here. These are all major, big-league countries, our colleague Glenn Kessler reports.

One diplomat said that his country even sent envoys to Washington to meet with Obamaland, but they couldn't get a meeting. Instead, the transition team sent "ears" -- youngish folks who are kind of connected to Obama.

The "ears" didn't say anything, but they took very careful notes of what the foreign officials wanted to say and then promised to report to the transition team.

Another ambassador noted that there was no point in meeting with the Bush people anymore, so he suddenly finds he has too much time on his hands.

It's not as if the Obama team is completely dissing these folks. One transition team member was spotted at an embassy cocktail reception, but it was widely accepted that he wouldn't say anything of substance.

All along Embassy Row, people think that Jan. 20 can't come soon enough. Only then, they think, will they begin to figure out Obama's foreign policy direction.

They may be in for a big surprise.

Obama Plays Santa

Obama's selection of outgoing Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) to be transportation secretary was a spectacular early Christmas present to hundreds of GOP lobbyists in Washington -- a group much depressed since Nov. 4. The GOP-dominated Air Transport Association of America, the lobby for U.S. airlines, avidly followed each blog yesterday as it reported the news and then sent links to its members all afternoon.

Given that the huge Obama stimulus package looks to focus heavily on transportation infrastructure projects, Republicans lobbying for highway, rail and water transport also were surely popping corks in celebration.

A GOP lobbyist, however, noted that President Bush had a Democrat, Norman Y. Mineta, as transportation secretary for much of his administration -- the longest-serving ever.

"They ensured that Democrats were well represented in that department with their issues and their lobbyists," a Republican lobbyist opined, hoping the new pick will mean good news for the GOP.

So let's see, Obama's from Chicago, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is from Chicago, and LaHood's district is a couple of hours away. That means Illinois is the new Alaska! Minus the indictments and the convictions of course, the lobbyist said.

Eating Their Words

Six days after the election, we noted hearing that former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack was pretty much a "shoo-in" for secretary of agriculture. Two weeks later, the Des Moines Register referred to that item but reported that Vilsack sent the paper an oddly worded e-mail in which he said he'd never been contacted by Obama aides about the job and he did "not think it prudent or appropriate to speculate" on this.

We were a bit puzzled, given that major Democratic players had weighed in on Vilsack's behalf, and our intelligence was pretty solid. But we backed off.

Yesterday, at the Vilsack announcement, a Register reporter asked Obama, "What has happened in the month since Governor Vilsack was led to believe that he would not be the choice for secretary of agriculture?"

"Well, I don't know who led him to believe that," Obama said. "Whoever did, obviously, was misinformed, because here he stands."

Past experience would indicate that -- pure speculation here -- after the initial flurry of oddly spontaneous support for Vilsack, followed by the news reports and "near shoo-in" status, someone in Chicago, maybe someone like David Axelrod or another Obama confident, let it be known that he thought Vilsack should go low-profile for a while.

So Vilsack e-mails the Register and everyone backs off.

A few weeks ago, the Iowa Independent also noted that we "went so far as to call" Vilsack a "near shoo-in."

Overly cautious. Shoulda cut the "near."

Moving In

Peter Rundlet -- a former counsel for the 9/11 Commission; a former vice president and managing director for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress; and more recently a senior official at Humanity United, a nonprofit seeking to improve conditions in impoverished and violence-torn countries -- is said to be the Obama administration pick for deputy staff secretary at the White House, the No. 2 person controlling paper flow over there.

Former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, now tasked with overhauling the nation's health-care system and the Department of Health and Human Services, will be able to count on former aide Mark Childress to help him. Childress is to be his chief of staff and also deputy director of the new White House Office of Health Reform. Childress had been Daschle's chief counsel and policy director when he was in the Senate.

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