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Members of Obama's team pack own political muscle

WASHINGTON — If President-elect Obama's emerging administration has one defining characteristic so far, it's that he has stocked it with people who are more used to giving orders than taking them.

In addition to experienced hands from the Clinton administration — the leading farm team for the Democratic intelligentsia — Obama has picked, or is expected to pick, Cabinet secretaries and key aides who are political heavyweights in their own right.

No president in recent history has turned to so many current leaders, presidential scholars said, from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is mulling his offer to become secretary of state, to Tom Daschle, a former Senate majority leader who is Obama's choice to become secretary of health.

This approach, especially if Clinton accepts, will give the former senator from Illinois instant connections to disparate factions in Washington's political establishment, where he remains a relative neophyte. Yet it also presents risks should he and his appointees clash.

"This is a very self-assured, self-confident president-elect, and the thing that makes his Cabinet unique from more recent presidents is that he has chosen people who have their own political standing," said John Kenneth White, a presidential scholar at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

"These people have constituencies within the Democratic Party, and it's quite different from more recent presidents, particularly George W. Bush," White said. Other than Bush's former defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who briefly served in the U.S. House, "his lions had never run for anything."

Obama's "lions" also include New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Rep. Rahm Emanuel. Richardson, reportedly in line for secretary of commerce, was a rival in the Democratic primaries and served in President Bill Clinton's Cabinet. Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, is a congressman from Chicago and the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House.

The range of choices shows that Obama favors experience and expertise over ideology. His nominees generally have received high praise from Democrats and Republicans alike.

"He is choosing pragmatists. Now, they're pragmatists who share his … world view, but they're pragmatists," said George Edwards III, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University and editor of Presidential Studies Quarterly. "They're people who know how to make things happen and have a grip on the real world."

• • •

With the exception in 1988 of George Bush, a vice president, every incoming president since 1976 was a governor, and each arrived in Washington with a covey of advisers from home.

As a freshman senator from Illinois, Obama "doesn't come in with a Georgia mafia, or a Texas mafia, or a California mafia," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of a new book, What Do We Do Now: A Workbook for the President-elect.

"So he's picked a lot of people who understand the legislative branch. This is exceedingly helpful, because it's remarkable how many of our recent presidents have stumbled almost immediately in dealing with Congress."

Several of Obama's top choices served in the Clinton administration, a political necessity given that Democrats have held the White House only 12 of the past 40 years. The most intriguing Clinton administration official being discussed, of course, is Sen. Clinton herself, who parlayed her role as first lady into a Senate seat out of New York and who a year ago was considered the probable Democratic presidential nominee.

If she stays in the Senate, she likely will play a leading role in Obama and Daschle's health care plan.

Adding her to his Cabinet could cost Obama an influential ally in the Senate. But bringing her into the fold would make her invested, in a sense, in Obama's success and would co-opt a potential critic. But a public rift between them could undermine the new president.

"Hillary Clinton is unique in American politics. There's nobody else quite like her, and she has a dedicated constituency," Edwards said. "The challenge is for her to be a team player. I think she is quite capable of doing that, but you have to raise the question."

Obama's other top picks and potential picks would add to his coalition much like Clinton would, and more so than if they were career diplomats or Democratic appointees. For example, not only was Emanuel the elected chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, but a good chunk of Democratic members literally owe him their jobs — as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he helped orchestrate his party's takeover two years ago.

In Janet Napolitano, the Arizona governor (possible homeland security secretary), or Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas (possible labor secretary) or even Richardson, Obama would be picking people in the prime of their careers who appeal to various constituencies.

"On the upside, they can leverage their own relationships on behalf of the president, and that's relationships with (politicians) and the press and the community of groups that they deal with," said Martha Joynt Kumar, a government professor at Towson State University in Maryland and director of the nonpartisan White House Transition Project, which advises incoming administrations.

But there is a risk to picking people who were rivals before they were allies, or who are political contemporaries with their own careers to consider.

"Instead of working cooperatively together, they will be looking to cover their … butts," said John Feehery, a political consultant and former House Republican leadership aide. "That's got to be managed. This is not just a game of pragmatism, it's also a game of ego, and the egos can get in the way."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Contact Wes Allison at or (202) 463-0577.

Members of Obama's team pack own political muscle 11/26/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 27, 2008 1:10pm]
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