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In the Loop: Who Will Lead USAID? Anyone?

Emergency supplies get a USAID sticker. The agency remains leaderless, and aid groups are holding a straw vote.
Emergency supplies get a USAID sticker. The agency remains leaderless, and aid groups are holding a straw vote. (By Wally Santana -- Associated Press)

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By Al Kamen
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Despite all the talk from President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about how super-important foreign assistance is these days, the administration has yet to announce a candidate to head the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Clinton a few months ago blamed the clearance process for the delay, calling it a "nightmare." No one is going to disagree with that, but pretty much the same ridiculous process was in place in 1993 when Bill Clinton named Brian Atwood to the job only two months after inauguration. And nothing in the process had changed by 2001 when George W. Bush named Andrew Natsios to the job scarcely one month after taking office.

But there's an increasing feeling in the foreign aid community that the leadership required to rescue a long-sinking ship is not going to be easy to find. As one observer noted: "Anyone smart enough to do the job is smart enough not to take it," especially when it's unclear whether USAID will be part of the State Department, as Clinton prefers, or whether it will be an independent, Cabinet-level agency, as many aid experts advocate.

Given the Senate's busy calendar, unless a nomination goes to the Hill in the next few weeks, it's possible the agency will be without an administrator at the end of the first year of Obama's presidency. The vacuum could not have come at a worse time, Oxfam America President Raymond Offenheiser says.

There is legislation in the Senate and the House that would overhaul USAID; there is also a major review of the development program, which is "a great step forward," Offenheiser said, "but there is no one in charge." He said that there is a "serious crisis because of a lack of leadership" and a need for someone who can "inspire a demoralized staff, who is a strong manager" with "gravitas" and development experience.

The international aid community is so desperate for someone to run USAID that top aid groups are holding their own poll to help find a candidate, listing 20 possibilities. A week into the poll, Nancy Birdsall, president of the Center for Global Development and formerly at the World Bank, is leading with 15 percent of the vote, ahead of Gayle Smith, a former USAID official now at the National Security Council, by just one point. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell comes in third at 12 percent.

The middle of the pack, with around 7 percent of the vote, includes former GOP senator Chuck Hagel and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.

Many of the candidates on the list tend toward the wonky -- long on aid expertise but short on the political heft and stature to lift AID to some modicum of functionality. But desperate times require creative solutions.

So, on the political front, former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura (I) or soon-to-be-former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) -- brings some of the Kennedy magic -- might be enticed to take the job. Soon-to-be-former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) now has international travel experience plus some knowledge of Spanish.

Perhaps someone from across the pond? There's Bono, Live Aid concert organizer Bob Geldof and underemployed former British prime minister Tony Blair. Experienced GOP administration officials might be the ticket, with former U.N. ambassador and State Department official John Bolton -- who worked at USAID in the Reagan administration -- and former deputy secretary of defense and World Bank head Paul Wolfowitz, who also was ambassador to Indonesia, looking strong. Amongst the Dems, former vice president Al Gore would probably decline, but former nine-term congressman Jim Traficant, just out of the slammer after serving seven years for bribery and racketeering, would be a possibility, should he decline to reclaim his House seat.

CLOSE

Seems every time you turn on the television, there's President Obama, getting all fired up, talking about health-care reform, staying in school and other highly partisan, emotional issues. This ubiquity naturally raises questions as to whether he's becoming overexposed, cheapening the product by familiarity and so on.

But maybe not yet. Our New York colleague Bart Gellman, walking Monday on the south side of Washington Square Park, noticed a large police traffic cordon. "Is the president passing by here?

"Yeah," the officer said. "Bush is coming."

BUT NO CIGAR

The House vote yesterday to rebuke Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) for shouting "You lie!" at President Obama during his speech last week was one of many signs of support for the president.

For example, Obama came under attack Tuesday from liberals and opponents of the trade embargo on Cuba for signing a one-year extension of the law used to impose the embargo. But anti-Castro folks and embargo supporters, including Mauricio Claver-Carone, head of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee here, defended Obama.

"People think he's a liar," Claver-Carone said, according to the Miami Herald, "but he's doing exactly what he has said -- changing [restrictions on] travel and remittances but not the embargo."

Okay, maybe not the strongest endorsement.


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