By Philip Rucker
Friday, January 15, 2010; A10
Five days into his new job, Rajiv Shah found himself in the White House Situation Room, seated four chairs from President Obama and overseeing the U.S. government's response to the earthquake that has devastated Haiti.
As Obama's designated "unified disaster coordinator," the 36-year-old doctor has been working to deploy relief workers, brief Cabinet secretaries and serve as a spokesman for the administration's rescue and recovery efforts -- all while on little sleep and lots of Diet Coke.
Shah, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has wowed the White House and State Department, with top officials in both places praising his steady leadership and command of the evolving operations in Port-au-Prince.
"Dr. Shah has been excellent," said Denis McDonough, National Security Council chief of staff, who has worked closely with Shah since Tuesday when the earthquake struck. "Focused. Calm. Facts-based."
Shah joined the administration last year as the undersecretary of agriculture for research, education and economics, but he soon was recruited by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to head USAID. The Senate confirmed his appointment Dec. 24 and he was sworn in one week ago.
Shah has collaborated with former president Bill Clinton's charitable foundation on international aid efforts over the past decade, and Clinton said Shah is up to the task of leading the recovery in Haiti.
"He has the background and deep understanding of the region to effectively lead the U.S.'s response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti," said Clinton, who serves as the U.N. special envoy to Haiti. "I know he's going to do a good job and make a real difference for the people of Haiti during their time of great need."
After the earthquake, Shah raced to understand the ramifications of the catastrophe. With the scope of the damage unknown -- it was not even clear whether the Port-au-Prince airport runways were operable -- Shah stayed at work until 2 a.m., developing plans to send help. He was back before dawn, aides said, standing on a stool in the White House press briefing room for live television interviews on the morning news shows. It was his first time doing live TV, but he did not appear nervous.
Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D), a former boss, saw Shah on NBC's "Today" show. "He's extraordinarily competent, extraordinarily bright and also extraordinarily articulate," said Rendell, on whose gubernatorial transition committee Shah served.'Superstar' in action
As the day progressed, aides said, Shah shuttled between the White House and USAID's disaster headquarters and remained in close contact with top officials, including the president and the secretary of state, using a Bluetooth device. Extra staff had to be brought in to answer Shah's phones. Shah has been "unflappable," said a senior aide to the secretary of state, who called Shah "a superstar waiting to be discovered."
Shah is the highest-ranking Indian American official in the Obama administration. His parents immigrated to Michigan from India, and Shah grew up in the Detroit suburbs.
After graduating from the University of Michigan, Shah attended the London School of Economics, earned an MD at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and a master's degree in health economics from Penn's Wharton School of Business. Shah was a health policy adviser on Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign and was an early supporter of Obama's 2008 campaign.
Shah is married to Shivam Mallick Shah, who is a top aide at the Department of Education. They live in the District and have two young children, Sajan and Amna.
Friends describe Shah as an ambitious workaholic who is as likable as he is nerdy, as comfortable talking about sports as he is musing about economic policy.
"He aspires for excellence," said Aneesh Chopra, Obama's chief technology officer, who has been friends with Shah since the mid-1990s. "He's thoughtful; he's clearly an engaging personality and friend. Frankly, he's a leader."Humanitarian efforts
People who know Shah said the humanitarian response in Haiti is no crash course for him. Before joining the administration, Shah worked at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where for seven years he developed humanitarian programs to help African children receive immunizations and lift African farmers out of poverty.
"Raj is the rare breed that combines vision with executional ability," said Joe Cerrell, director of the Gates Foundation's European office.
"He's meticulous about understanding the nature of the problem and then being extremely resourceful about the things that need to be brought to the table to address these challenges."
"Half the battle here is not just emergency response and humanitarian relief, but creating the basis for long-term recovery and rebuilding," said Kathy Bushkin Calvin, chief executive of the United Nations Foundation. Calvin, who has worked with Shah over the years, said he can do that. "He has a very clear mind, knows how to ask questions and find the evidence for what's really going to work. He has a very steady and strong approach, which I think is essential for a leader at this kind of time."