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In the Loop: Obama Falls Behind on Appointments

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By Al Kamen
Wednesday, September 23, 2009

President Obama's personnel operation, which got off to a record-breaking start early this year in filling top administration jobs, has stalled a bit in recent months. In fact, it's well behind the pace set by the Bush administration in 2001 for the top 500 or so administration jobs -- and time is quickly running out to close the gap.

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At this point, the Obama administration would have to dramatically accelerate its pace in order to overtake the Bush appointee numbers by the end of this year. George W. Bush ended his first year in office having filled 81 percent of the top jobs, or about 400 posts, not counting judges, prosecutors, ambassadors and U.S. marshals.

In contrast, Obama has announced 312 picks for those jobs, and 239 nominees have been confirmed. And the window of opportunity is closing. While there's no fixed date for when a nomination could be acted upon by the Senate, it's a fairly safe bet that any nominations sent to the Hill after the end of next month would have little chance of being confirmed. The Senate will have to move at, for that body, breakneck speed to confirm that many nominees -- and it's got a lot of other things to do before the holidays.

Various explanations are floating as to why Team Obama has slowed down. One problem may have been the departure of personnel director Don Gips, who bailed for an embassy posting in South Africa. Another reason could be the White House focus on health care, a couple of wars and the confirmation of Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Or it may be the tightened and more time-consuming vetting procedures after some prominent stumbles on the tax front.

On the other hand, Bush had a much-shortened transition and the GOP lost the Senate when Sen. Jim Jeffords (Vt.) defected in May 2001. And then there was Sept. 11, 2001. (Obama has had a Democratic-controlled Senate.)

In the meantime, some fine jobs are still unfilled, including undersecretary for health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, undersecretary of energy for nuclear security, administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and undersecretary of agriculture for food safety.

(For more details on Obama's political appointments, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/headcount.)

ONE OF THE NINE

Speaking of Sotomayor, the South Bronx native and lifelong Yankees fan is throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Saturday's game between the Bronx Bombers and the Boston Red Sox, the Yankees announced yesterday. It's part of the Yankees' Hispanic Heritage Month.

She's never pitched -- never even played baseball at all, in fact -- but she started practicing by tossing a tennis ball in the hall outside her chambers. She's graduated to pitching with a baseball outside on the grounds. The right-hander would be the fourth justice in recent years to throw out a first pitch: Justice Samuel Alito started for his Philadelphia Phillies in 2006, Stephen Breyer started for the Red Sox that same year, and Justice John Paul Stevens pitched for the Chicago Cubs four years ago, when he was only 85.

Look for a slider, low and away.

WELL, MAYBE DAY TWO

Remember "Ready on Day One"? It was one of Hillary Rodham Clinton's most effective themes in the 2008 presidential campaign. The most memorable ad she had was the one asking voters who they would want answering the phone at 3 a.m. in case of a national or international emergency -- the notion being she was ready to be president while her fellow senator Obama would require some serious on-the-job training.

And throughout that campaign, former president Bill Clinton insisted that his wife was, without question, the Democratic candidate best equipped to step into the presidency and do the job.

Given that, our colleague Chris Cillizza was struck by the former president's observation in an interview with CNN's Larry King in advance of the fifth annual Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York City.

"I think he's also growing into the job, as I did -- as nearly everybody does," Clinton said of Obama. "Nobody shows up just ready to be president."

Nobody?

YIELDING TO THE CHAIR?

Back on Sept. 1, Danielle Brian, head of the government watchdog Project on Government Oversight, wrote a lengthy letter to Secretary of State Clinton that exposed numerous problems with the security contractor defending the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The POGO investigation reported that security guards had engaged in lewd behavior, hazed subordinates and demoralized the undermanned force, posing a "significant threat" to security there.

"Please contact me . . . if you have any questions or need further information or evidence to aid your efforts," Brian wrote. "Thank you for your consideration of this very important matter."

The folks at State moved quickly, demanding replacement of the management team in Kabul and the removal of all guards involved in misconduct. They sent Brian a form e-mail response telling her to look at a spokesman's comments to reporters on the issue. Within days, some of the guards had been removed and lost their security clearances.

But Brian never got a fuller response to her original letter. On Monday, however, she finally received a thank-you "for your letter to Secretary Clinton."

"The Department procures office furniture through General Services Administration (GSA) . . . contracts, supplemented by our own Blanket Purchase Agreement (BPA)," said the letter, from Steven J. Rodriguez, deputy assistant secretary for operations in the bureau of administration. "The current GSA contract is with Knoll, Inc.," the letter continued, and "we extended our BPA with Knoll . . . through Dec. 31, 2012."

The letter, it turned out, was addressed not to Brian but to a corporate lawyer. Brian said she called the lawyer -- he didn't want his name used -- to see whether perhaps he'd gotten a letter for her by mistake. No such luck.

Graphics editor Karen Yourish contributed to this column.


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