It’s a given that President-elect Barack Obama will have to confront the current economic meltdown head-on when he wakes up the day after his inauguration. And while that will be nearly an all-consuming task for his fledgling administration, other key issues – stem cell research, health care reform, carbon capture, energy policy, food safety, unemployment – argue there will be a very short honeymoon for the 44th president of the United States.
The game played in Washington these days is all about who gets tapped to play on the Obama team. The prospective names are starting to leak out, the office pools are being formed on who gets what job, and soon we’ll see the cabinet, subcabinet, and White House that will be the Obama administration. What will an Obama presidency look like?
So far, it looks a whole lot like the Clinton administration.
There are a finite number of experienced party players of any stripe available at any given time. Those Clintonites who joined think tanks, law firms, or universities, or became “consultants” to lobbying shops in Washington, DC, are coming out of the woodwork, names and faces not heard or seen in just about the eight years George W. Bush was president. It’s their time in the sun. Some will take new jobs in this “historic” administration; others will not want to take the pay cut, but will become key influencers to those who do.
This is to be expected. After all, Obama must draw his cabinet from the ranks of the party faithful, though he’s also looking at some fairly solid Republican players to join his “administration of change.” The concern, however, is that by recycling the old Clinton team, how much “change” from the Washington-as-usual can be expected?
The first hire made public was Representative Rahm Emanuel (D-IL), who will give up his House seat to become White House chief of staff. Emanuel is a Democrat’s Democrat, so totally committed to both Democrat ideals and Obama philosophy that he’s known as a political pit bull, whether on the floor of the House or the campaign trail. Highly intelligent, Emanuel will provide to Obama the “big stick” he’ll need as the president walks softly through the halls of Congress, keeping him above the inevitable partisan battles. His greatest value will be to keep the House – and by that I mean Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) – from getting out ahead of the new president as Emanuel is one of the few known to be able to take on Pelosi and prevail.
The next player to be announced was John Podesta as co-chair of the Obama transition team. The transition team roster reads like a Clinton alumni club roster. Podesta, on leave as head of a Washington think tank he created, is President Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff, a man with a keen intellect, but also a tough political street fighter. He’s well-known to the Washington agricultural contingent as he was one of three senior staff who ran the Senate Agriculture Committee in the early 1990s when Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) was chair. Podesta’s brother, Tony, runs one of the biggest lobbying shops in Washington. While it’s not known whether Podesta will abandon his think tank to take a job inside the White House – my guess is he will – this is the man who will have direct influence over the acceptability of every nominee Obama may consider.
Just before Thanksgiving, Obama sent a calming signal to Wall Street by naming his economic team. That team, a critical component of the incoming administration’s bid to jump-start a flailing economy, includes, as expected, the nomination of Tim Geithner, president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, to be secretary of treasury. Geithner has been intimately involved in the development and execution of the current economic rescue plan. Obama also named former Clinton Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers as director of the National Economic Council. It’s expected Summers will take the lead on economic policy development, with Geithner acting to implement policy and programs.
Dr. Christina Romer, a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, will chair the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors, with Melody Barnes named director of the Domestic Policy Council. Barnes’ position is critical as it includes all issues related to food, agriculture, and trade considered by the White House.
As to who will eventually become the secretaries, deputy secretaries, deputy under secretaries, assistant secretaries, and deputy assistant secretaries of whichever department is speculation at this point, but some names are bouncing to the top of a consensus list. With rare exception, the White House rarely dips below this cabinet and subcabinet level when making appointments, meaning sitting agency and center administrators and directors within the various departments will likely keep their jobs. To mess with the mid-level jobs is to risk sucking the institutional memory and expertise out of the departments.
Who gets the nod for secretary of agriculture is more significant in this presidential transition than in previous administrations if only because the meltdown on Wall Street will soon be felt in the small towns of rural America if not in board rooms in New York and Chicago. The names most often listed include Representative Charlie Stenholm (D-TX), now a consultant at a Washington law firm; Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union (NFU); and Representative Collin Peterson (D-MN), chair of the House Agriculture Committee. A new addition to the list is Representative Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-SD), a 38-year-old four-term representative.
Of the top contenders, Stenholm makes the most sense. He’s a founding member of – and continues to counsel – the Blue Dog Democrats in the House, that fiscally conservative cabal of moderate Democrats increasingly key to moving or stopping any legislation, and he’s well-respected by both sides of the aisle on both sides of Capitol Hill. He knows how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) works – and doesn’t – so there’d be little, if any, learning curve, and he’s a known quantity to the agriculture community, well-liked, and respected. Stenholm could hit the ground running and take on Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) when circumstances demand. He also lost his seat in a redistricting vendetta pulled off by former Representative Tom DeLay (D-TX), in part for refusing to change his party affiliation to make DeLay and his gang happy. This has to count for something with Emanuel and Podesta.
Buis, while extremely qualified and well-respected, is a registered lobbyist – apparently the ultimate sin in an Obama administration – and, frankly, he’d have more power and influence as president of NFU than sitting at the top of USDA. Peterson has said repeatedly he’s not interested in the job, and I’m willing to take his word on that, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he was nominated and accepted the job.
Another name to watch is Bart Chilton, the co-chair of the agriculture transition team, who currently sits as a Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) commissioner and has held key jobs on Capitol Hill, most prominently as senior advisor on agriculture and transportation to former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD), a key Obama insider. He was also vice president of NFU for government affairs. He’s a veteran of several top level jobs during Clinton’s USDA. To me, Chilton has deputy secretary nominee written all over him. And while no names have emerged specifically tied to the USDA deputy secretary slot, it’s expected Chilton’s current CFTC job may be rolled into a reinvented Securities and Exchange Commission/CFTC, so he’s looking.
For the key jobs of under secretary for marketing and regulatory programs or foreign affairs and farm programs, no names specifically tied to those slots have emerged; it’s likely the secretary nominee will want to provide input into those key team positions.
Daschle gets the nod to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a nomination, according to inside speculation, acceptable to Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), chair of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. Kennedy, suffering from a brain tumor, has not resigned from the Senate and is working hard on health care reform legislation as his priority in the 111th Congress. Daschle makes the most sense because of his interest in health care reform – he just wrote a book on it – and it’s known that since he didn’t get the White House chief of staff job, HHS is his second pick. He’s also a skilled political player, a key talent to getting something as controversial as health care reform through Congress.
FDA commissioner is a different game altogether. So far the names most often mentioned are new ones, including the public health officer of Baltimore, MD. My guess is that we’ve not yet read the name of the person who will take over at FDA. The good news here is that the directors of the Center for Veterinary Medicine and Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the respective ground zeros on feed and food safety, will likely not change unless those individuals decide to move on to greener pastures.
So, there you have my guesses as to who will get the jobs proposing, implementing, and overseeing the policy and programs renderers most care about. Other nominations made already or expected include Senator Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson as secretary of commerce, and Peter Orszag as head of the Office of Management and Budget.
But a wise man, with more than a few years in Washington, reminded me the other day that more often than not, the folks campaigning for or expected to get these jobs early on, rarely emerge the winner in this sweepstakes. We’ll see.
View from Washington – December 2008 RENDER | back