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Transition Signals a Centrist Approach in Obama White House

Barack Obama with nominees Hilda L. Solis, Karen Mills, Ray LaHood and Ron Kirk last month. He is ahead of schedule on filling his Cabinet.
Barack Obama with nominees Hilda L. Solis, Karen Mills, Ray LaHood and Ron Kirk last month. He is ahead of schedule on filling his Cabinet. (By Ann Ryan -- Pool Via Getty Images)

"Overall, it's gone pretty smoothly, but at the end of the day I think what a lot of us really want is for him to succeed, and we do want change," McGovern said. "We do want things to be different. We want there to be a focus on a different set of priorities."

Obama, who has sought to elude political definition since his early days as a candidate, described his almost fully formed Cabinet as having the "right blend of innovation versus old hands," and he reiterated that change will emanate from him, not from his inner circle.

"I was never of the belief that the way you bring about change is to not hire anybody who knows how things work, and to start from scratch and completely reinvent the wheel," he said. "I'm the one who brings change. It is my vision. It is my agenda. It is the one that we talked about during the campaign and those millions of people voted for. But I want some good mechanics who know how to run the system based on the goals and the vision that I set."

As for ideology, he said: "Part of what we're trying to eliminate is thinking through that lens."

Obama's style over the past 2 1/2 months was crisp and quick, both in making appointments and in cutting off problems before they escalated, his senior advisers said in interviews. Though Obama lauded Podesta for the smooth running of the transition ("He doesn't like to get credit, but John Podesta deserves credit here in terms of having helped structure our transition in an outstanding way," he said last week), his advisers, not surprisingly, said the big decisions came straight from the president-elect.

Several Cabinet picks were entirely Obama's doing, made before his transition team presented him with any candidates, and came from having a "gut feeling" about the people, one senior adviser said. Timothy F. Geithner, Obama's choice for Treasury secretary, was someone with whom he just clicked, his advisers said, even before the election (Geithner and Lawrence H. Summers waged a fierce battle for the position, aides said, with the latter ultimately being placed in a secondary role as national economic adviser).

Obama requested LaHood for his Cabinet because they were friends from Illinois, advisers said. He had a comfort level with Eric H. Holder Jr. and knew early on that he wanted to hire him for something, eventually choosing him to lead the Justice Department.

His first -- and arguably most startling -- major decision was to select Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) as his secretary of state, an idea that he had before the election and that he put on the table in his first post-election meeting in Chicago on Nov. 5, several advisers said. Obama never wanted Clinton for any other post and did not seriously consider any other candidates for the top diplomatic job, they said.

Acquiring Clinton required Obama to look past immediate questions about her husband's foundation work, not to mention the acrimony of the Democratic primary campaign. And it meant a degree of patience: For Clinton, there were obvious drawbacks to taking on a new, travel-heavy job, including an end to her stable life as a senator and her remaining campaign debt, which she would not be able to retire once becoming secretary. Obama was "patient," one transition aide said. "He understood it as a senator" and did not push Clinton to accept right away.

Every potential obstacle was met with reassurance from Obama that it could be resolved. Helping matters further was a long-standing relationship between Podesta and Cheryl Mills, the Clinton consigliere who handled her interactions with the Obama team (and whose relations with Obama campaign manager David Plouffe had not always been smooth).

Obama had to cajole other candidates to set aside their concerns about certain jobs, too. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano had expressed a desire to be attorney general before Obama chose her to head the Department of Homeland Security, several advisers said. Retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, who is the incoming national security adviser, had concerns about the configuration of that position. In both cases, Obama allayed their worries, saying he would fix any problems.

"There were people who, for very good reasons -- who had great careers where they were -- may have been initially reluctant to take this leap toward change, and he understood that," said Valerie Jarrett, an Obama confidante. "And therefore he was patient so he could get what he wanted."

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