Washington Two main quarries are supplying the building blocks for President-elect Barack Obama’s new administration.
Longtime, deeply loyal associates will dominate the White House inner sanctum. And veterans of Bill Clinton’s presidency will hold vital jobs throughout the government, although a bit farther from the Oval Office.
The structure suggests Obama is confident enough to hand top posts to former rivals whose loyalty is not guaranteed, a strategy many presidents have avoided. But most of those on Obama’s team who will have his ear everyday will be old friends and experienced advisers who are seen as having no ambitions beyond his success.
Obama raised eyebrows this month when he tapped some of Clinton’s closest allies for important jobs.
John Podesta, Clinton’s former White House chief of staff, is heading the transition effort. Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a former top Clinton adviser, is Obama’s chief of staff. Former Clinton appointees Eric Holder and Janet Napolitano appear in line for Cabinet posts.
Even more startling to many, Obama has signaled plans to name former first lady Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.
Some Obama supporters have praised him for reaching out to his toughest primary opponent. But others question why they worked so hard to defeat Clinton only to see her, and many close to her, grab prizes in the new administration. They note that Obama repeatedly campaigned against “the politics of the past” and Washington “dramas,” thinly veiled jabs at the Clinton presidency as well as President George W. Bush’s tenure.
Stephen Hess, a George Washington University authority on presidential transitions, said Obama is playing it smart.
“It’s easy to make a leap that this is going to be a repeat of the Clinton administration and there’s no way that’s going to happen,” said Hess, who first worked for the Eisenhower administration.
Obama needs a core of Democrats with federal government experience, Hess said, and veterans of Bill Clinton’s administration are virtually the only source. “The old-timers are exceedingly valuable to him now,” he said, but Obama “also has his own group of advisers and he will merge the two groups.”
That merger began taking shape last week. Obama’s three “senior advisers,” who will have desks near the Oval Office, are some of his closest and longest-serving allies:
• David Axelrod, his Chicago-based media strategist, will focus on message and communications.
• Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago businesswoman and close family friend, probably will concentrate on intergovernmental relations and community outreach.
• Pete Rouse, who was Obama’s Senate chief of staff, is expected to work closely with Emanuel on White House operations and congressional affairs.
Robert Gibbs, Obama’s spokesman since his 2004 Senate race, was named on Saturday as White House press secretary. Ellen Moran, the executive director of the Washington group EMILY’s List, will be director of communications, and her deputy will be Dan Pfeiffer, communications director for Obama’s presidential transition team.
Another possible top pick, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones as national security adviser, could give Obama a valuable hand in dealing with Hillary Clinton, a powerful figure who might not completely subordinate her political ambitions to those of the new president. Obama feels close to Jones, aides say, and he might form an important part of the innermost circle even though the two men have not known each other as long as Obama has known Jarrett and Axelrod.
Bridging the camps
The task of coordinating all these efforts and bringing structure to the West Wing will fall largely to Emanuel, the fiercely competitive and sharp-tongued Chicagoan who is giving up his House leadership post to work for Obama. He is well-positioned to bridge the Obama and Clinton camps.
Emanuel made his political reputation as a brash young adviser to President Bill Clinton. But his Chicago roots give him close ties to Obama and associates such as Axelrod and Jarrett.
One of Emanuel’s biggest challenges will be regulating access to Obama and keeping him from being unduly distracted by well-meaning aides focused on their particular set of problems and ideas. Some people close to Obama think that Axelrod, Rouse, Jarrett, Gibbs and perhaps others will expect to have “walk-in” privileges at the Oval Office, meaning that at almost any time they can insist on seeing the man they have called “Barack” for years.
Such easy access has plagued past presidents, and Washington insiders will watch closely to see where Obama draws the line, even if it means bruising old friends’ egos.
Jennifer Palmieri, a spokeswoman in the Clinton White House, said the West Wing’s cramped quarters and urgent business can lead to “a situation where the day becomes one rolling meeting that starts in the chief of staff’s office and spills into the Oval Office.”
The chief of staff must cope with huge amounts of chaos, tension and demands to insulate the president from all but the must important issues before him, she said.
Aides such as Axelrod and Gibbs probably will be able to see Obama on short notice without seeking Emanuel’s permission, Palmieri said, but they certainly would inform Emanuel of their visit and its purpose.
“You have to establish access rules to the Oval Office up front,” she said. Emanuel should be able to impose such discipline, she said, because “he’s tough and direct with everyone, so no one has to take it personally.”
Most presidents and their staffs need some time to find the right balance.
Bill Clinton brought to Washington several Arkansas associates, including boyhood friend Mack McLarty, his first White House chief of staff. McLarty had trouble imposing discipline on West Wing operations and was soon replaced by the no-nonsense Leon Panetta, Clinton’s budget director and a former California congressman.
Virtually every new president surrounds himself with people he has known for years, even if they know little about the White House, Congress and the sometimes sharp-clawed worlds of Washington lobbyists and journalists. They adjust at varying rates.
Jimmy Carter brought a cadre of aides from Georgia, including press secretary Jody Powell and key adviser Hamilton Jordan. They struggled at times to cope with the flood of problems and demands pouring in, and Carter famously spent time deciding who could use the White House tennis courts.