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President-elect Barack Obama (center) during his first press conference, in Chicago, following his election victory, Nov. 7, 2008.

President-elect Barack Obama (center) during his first press conference, in Chicago, following his election victory, Nov. 7, 2008.

It’s proving difficult to peer inside Obama’s still tightly closed Cabinet. But so far his presidential transition has looked deliberate and impressive.

Nov. 11, 2008 | Amid the fervid speculation over the identity of the next secretary of state or even the next assistant secretary of labor for administration and management, there is a truth that is galling to gossip-mongers — Barack Obama and his closest advisors know how to keep secrets. With nearly 10 percent of the transition period between administrations already gone, we know more about the factors that will dictate the selection of the White House puppy than we do about the reasoning behind the choice of a would-be Treasury secretary.

As Valerie Jarrett, co-chair of Obama’s transition team, put it with deliberate blandness on “Meet the Press” Sunday: “I think one of the real strengths of Sen. Obama’s campaign and now President-elect Obama’s transition is that he really does like to think this through thoroughly and not telecast what he’s going to do until he’s ready to make a decision.”

No one wants to read articles titled “Entire Obama Administration Shrouded in Mist and Mystery.” So to accentuate the positive, we do have a pretty reliable handle as to who will be in the room with Obama (and presumably Joe Biden) when the major personnel decisions are made. There will be Jarrett, an African-American Chicago real estate entrepreneur who has been close friends to the president-elect and the incoming first lady for two decades; Pete Rouse, the press-shy former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who performed the same role for a newly elected Illinois senator named Obama; the Chicago-born John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former White House chief of staff, who stealthily organized the Obama transition during the fall campaign from his Washington perch at the Center for American Progress; David Axelrod, the Chicago-based political strategist, who was the inspiration behind both Obama’s up-from-nowhere 2004 Senate victory and his 2008 run for the Rose Garden; and incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a sharp-elbowed veteran of the Clinton White House who was elected to Congress in 2002 (from Chicago, natch) with the help of Axelrod (double natch).

With all these Chicagoans (aside from Rouse) creating the Obama administration, it is time to drop the Second City urban inferiority complex. If there is an ideological orientation to this team, it seems to be Democratic centrism rather than full-throated liberalism. Bill Galston, a former top domestic advisor to Clinton now at the Brookings Institution, notes that Obama “has a great respect for expertise. His instinct is that in any field, gather the leading experts and go after them.” As Galston puts it, “This is not amateur hour — this is not crony time.” Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and an expert on governmental organization, said admiringly, “Obama is extremely well-prepared. There is a lot of talk coming out of the Bush administration about a seamless transition. But in many instances, the Obama people know as much about what is happening in the Cabinet agencies as the Bush people do.”

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11-10-2008-5-56-15-pm A few days before the election, a Democratic strategist privately worried that a Vice-President Joe Biden was destined for a White House career of dissatisfaction and idle-hands mischief.

“You can’t just have a guy like him at loose ends, he’d go crazy,” said a Democratic consultant who knows the affable, bright and mercilessly quotable soon-to-be ex-chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. “They need to keep him busy. Nobody over there wants him getting into the Secretary of State’s [business].”

Harnessing Biden’s considerable talents and containing his flaws will be an ongoing challenge for Obama. But Democratic insiders say the appointment of tough-guy Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff—and the administration’s need to forge a governing coalition that includes some Republicans—has brought Biden’s upcoming role more clearly into focus: He’ll play the good cop.

The Democrats’ apparent failure to win the 60 Senate seats necessary to halt a GOP filibuster has created the need for inter-party ambassadors like Biden who are practiced at the art of aisle crossing. In his 36-year Senate career, Biden was never considered a bomb-throwing ideologue, and he still has plenty of chits to cash in with Republicans on the Hill.

“He’s probably got more friends among Senate Republicans than John McCain does, and that’s a huge plus for Barack Obama, who is committed to breaking the partisan roadblock of recent years,” said Biden spokesman David Wade shortly before Election Day.

And while Emanuel’s bad-cop reputation may be overstated, all those F-bombs and threats to pulverize GOP incumbents during his tenure of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee boss create an opening for Biden, who maxes out on the Mr. Nice Guy scale.

“I really have genuine relationships with Republican leaders in the House and the Senate. I mean, I—I hope this is not self serving, but I’ve gained the respect,” Biden told an Ohio campaign rally in late October. “I’ve been able to literally work with the Republican leaders, of the committees as well as, as well as the Senate,” he added. “And Barack knows that, Barack has served there and sees that… I’m confident that I’ll be spending a fair amount of time [in Congress].”

In an interview with the New Yorker last month, Biden selected a lofty, if somewhat dubious role model: Lyndon Johnson, who plunged into a deep depression when John F. Kennedy assigned him the role as emissary to a Senate he had bullied, cajoled and utterly dominated as majority leader in the 1950s.

Former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat who’s fond of Biden, painted a different picture: “I can see Joe in his room [just off the Senate chamber], smiling, slapping people on the back, making his points, working the members.”

Indeed, Biden told the New Yorker that his style would be more honey than sting: “I have never ever, ever screwed another senator,” he said.

On top of that, Biden could not be more different than the outgoing vice president, who never visited the weekly Democratic caucus lunches in the Senate and had virtually no relationships with the other side of the aisle. It’s unlikely that Biden will ever be caught telling another senator to “Go [expletive] yourself” as Dick Cheney famously said to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy. Unless he’s kidding.

Biden’s best Republican friends in the Senate are centrists, including retiring Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel and the top Republican on the Foreign Relations committee, Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar, with whom he’s forged a close working partnership.

Biden is equally popular with some GOP staffers, drawing top-level Republican aides into free-ranging discussion on nettlesome policy problems, even setting up secure computer forums where aides can swap ideas without partisan recrimination, according to a person who participated in one of the chat groups.

The veep in waiting is not a favorite with Republicans hard-liners, though, who still hold grudges over his tough questioning of former Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The conservative bloc in the Senate remains unified, and could still engineer a filibuster of Obama priorities.

“Joe’s really well liked—and he can be a real stand-up guy—but it’s going to be tough for him,” said an aide to a top Senate Republican, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We’re not in the mood to make deals. People like him, sure, but people are going to change their votes on defense or health care or taxes just because Joe Biden’s a great guy?”

Biden may find it even tougher with Democratic senators—thrilled to have one of their own in the White House again—who may want to simply bypass the vice president and forge a relationship directly with Obama.

“He will carve out a role for himself, the problem is that he’s going to have a lot of competition—and it’s competition that won’t be willing to step aside for him,” says Jennifer Duffy, who covers the Senate for the non-partisan Cook Political Report.

Obama hasn’t served a full term in the Senate but he’s got plenty of friends in the Democratic caucus: Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, up-and-coming Missouri freshman Claire McCaskill and an ailing but still powerful Ted Kennedy. Obama also has a unique relationship with one of the most conservative senators, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, with whom he shares a passion for government reform.

Then there’s former Majority Leader Tom Daschle—a well-connected kitchen-cabinet Obama adviser who is likely to play some kind of role in the administration.

But Biden’s biggest competition may come from the president-elect himself.

“Obama already has his own relationships in the Senate so, in a sense, he doesn’t need an emissary,” Duffy adds. “He’s his own go-to guy.”

Obama has gone to great lengths to establish personal relationships with legislators, creating direct lines of communication that will be handy even if he runs into problems with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

“Barack’s been seriously keeping touch with the [fiscally conservative Democratic] Blue Dogs and all the other foot soldiers—he’s intent on not making the same mistakes we did,” said a former aide to Bill Clinton, who worked his congressional transition team in the early 1990s. “We thought all we had to do was to keep in touch with the leaders and we left the members and committee chairs alone. That was a huge mistake and it killed us on the health care… Barack’s not making that mistake.”

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