Despite Dramatic Change at White House, Pace of Filling in Departments Much More Slow

"I'm hoping to come in this weekend to make the office more my own," said Matthew Yale, who just became the deputy chief of staff to the new education secretary.
"I'm hoping to come in this weekend to make the office more my own," said Matthew Yale, who just became the deputy chief of staff to the new education secretary. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Joel Achenbach and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sean Smith, 38, is an Obama newbie, freshly arrived at the Homeland Security Department on Nebraska Avenue. He has an interim ID badge, a computer, an e-mail account, a BlackBerry. He has gone through what is known in the bureaucracy as "in-processing." By Thursday, Day Two of the job, he was feeling less disoriented than on Day One.

"I've doubled my entire tenure in one day. There's a sense that the ground is becoming more solid under my feet," Smith said by phone from his fourth-floor office.

Or maybe it's a third-floor office.

"I think it's the fourth floor. I'm not even sure," he said. "There's a four on the door there. It's a big maze out here."

He soon determined that he was in building four, floor three.

So begins a new presidential administration. The big boss is at his desk at the White House, but the vast executive branch is in an awkward phase, lightly sprinkled with political appointees still trying to get permanent badges and locate the restrooms. Many of the big corner offices remain empty.

In short, the Obama administration is still partly hypothetical. There are more than 3,000 political jobs to fill, including 1,141 positions that require Senate confirmation. Soon after President Obama took office on Tuesday, the Senate approved seven of those nominations, then an eighth on Wednesday and six more Thursday evening. Only 1,127 to go.

As the weekend arrived, some Cabinet-level departments were still being run by civil servants rather than Obama picks. Even in agencies where the secretaries are in place, there are few -- or no -- confirmed deputies. The filling-in of offices along the corridors radiating from the secretary's sanctum typically takes months, as the Senate's sense of urgency fades. In recent years, individual senators have more frequently blocked nominations.

Slowing everything further is a new culture of intensive vetting. Ethics rules have been tightened, and background checks have become more thorough. A would-be Obama administration official must answer a 63-item questionnaire that asks, among other things, if he or she has ever written an e-mail or penned a diary entry that might embarrass the administration.

And so change, dramatic though it may be at the White House, comes more subtly to the bureaucracy.

At the Labor Department building on Constitution Avenue, the new administration means that the TVs in the main lobby are now tuned to CNN after years of Fox News. The portraits of former president George W. Bush and departed secretary Elaine L. Chao have vanished from the walls. But there aren't any Obama people to be found, much less pictures of them. Obama's choice for labor secretary, Rep. Hilda L. Solis, hasn't been confirmed.

The technological transition has been shaky across town, as well. At the Web site, an organization chart declared that the secretary's job remained vacant -- even though the Senate had a day earlier confirmed Obama's nominee, Shaun Donovan.

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