If Obama wins the election, look for Tom Daschle standing at his side

Election 2008

October 26, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,paul.west@baltsun.com

WASHINGTON - Newly elected presidents often need a guide, a sherpa to ease them into the loftiest office in the world.

George W. Bush, elected with no national experience, leaned heavily on Dick Cheney, a master of the capital's ways.

John McCain, a seasoned politician, would be his own expert. No recent president has come to the White House with deeper Washington roots.

McCain has spent more than half his adult life in the House and Senate, and his network of personal connections spans the federal establishment. Growing up, his father was the Navy's senior liaison officer to the Congress, and leading politicians were wined and dined at the family's Capitol Hill home.

FOR THE RECORD - A column in yesterday's news section incorrectly stated that a Barack Obama administration would be the first in history with a president and vice president coming directly from the United States Senate. In 1960, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson were sitting senators when they were elected.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

Barack Obama, by contrast, has been a Washington creature for less than four years, and a part-time one at that. If elected, he'd need help, and he seems to have found it already.

Obama's Cheney is Tom Daschle.

Daschle helped smooth Obama's entry into Washington and now serves as a top presidential campaign adviser. If Obama wins, Daschle could wind up as the second-most-powerful man in America.

Both nominees have transition teams at work, preparing lists of potential candidates for thousands of jobs that must be filled. Personnel drives policy, and the men and women of the new administration will be key to implementing its agenda.

Those choices, announced between the election and the inauguration, will send a powerful message about how the new president intends to govern. Public attention will revolve around Cabinet choices, the new team's most visible symbols.

But insiders, who regard Cabinets more as window dressing, want to know who will work inside the White House, where the most important decisions are made.

Obama has said his running mate, Joe Biden, will be a key adviser, and the veteran senator would clearly be a help in lobbying Congress. An Obama administration would be the first in history with a president and vice president who came straight to their new jobs from the Senate.

But Obama has cut Biden little slack in the campaign, and it's unlikely that he will have a role in the day-to-day operation of the government - and certainly less clout than Cheney, the most powerful vice president in history.

Instead, the greatest influence, outside the Oval Office, would likely be the White House chief of staff, traditionally one of the most important unelected figures in Washington.

Daschle, who hasn't ruled out taking the job, would be a logical choice. He has the requisite ambition, having explored and abandoned a presidential run of his own, and more than three decades of Washington experience, starting as staff aide to home-state Sen. James Abourezk of South Dakota.

In 2004, Obama was elected to the Senate as Daschle, the Democratic leader, was defeated. Daschle's top aide assumed the same job in Obama's office, and the outgoing senator provided a slew of key talent to the presidential campaign.

Obama's field organization, central to the candidate's success, is led by a former Daschle campaign manager. The record-shattering Obama fundraising operation is directed by another Daschle alum. Others with Daschle experience on their resumes include senior Obama communications aides, national field organizers and policy advisers.

The Obama transition team is led by John Podesta, a former Daschle aide who was Bill Clinton's last White House chief of staff. The team's base of operations is Podesta's liberal think tank in Washington, the Center for American Progress, where Daschle is a senior fellow.

Speculation about Daschle's ascension to the White House staff chief's job has been simmering for months.

"It's way too early to make any comments about it," Daschle recently told the Los Angeles Times. "It's always a possibility, but I've not had any conversations with anybody about future positions and don't intend to."

Daschle is also rumored to have his eye on a less demanding position, perhaps secretary of state. That could help him avoid the inevitable criticism that would greet his selection for a White House job, since that would violate the spirit of one of Obama's signature campaign pledges.

As part of his promise to change the way Washington does business, Obama frequently said that lobbyists wouldn't run his White House, though that line was used mainly during the Democratic primaries.

Three years ago, Daschle passed through the revolving door into Washington's influence-peddling industry and appears to have been involved in the sort of activities Obama condemns.

After his '04 loss, Daschle joined the legislative and public policy unit of a K Street law/lobby firm, Atlanta-based Alston & Bird.

There, according to the firm's Web site, he provides "strategic advice" to clients, with special emphasis on "financial services, health care, energy, telecommunications and taxes." Daschle is not a registered lobbyist (though his wife, Linda, a former aviation regulator in the Clinton administration, is one of the city's highest-powered lobbyists).

Like Obama, Daschle has a reputation as a cool customer. In opposing the soft-spoken South Dakotan's run for Senate leader, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia felt Daschle wouldn't be tough enough. "I was totally wrong," Byrd said later. "He has steel in his spine, despite his reasonable and modest demeanor."

As party leader, Daschle used gentle persuasion to hold Senate Democrats in line, and that low-key temperament might serve him well as the top White House aide.

A Republican lobbyist, musing on the possibility, said it would be a very smart move for Obama to make Daschle his chief of staff.

With Democrats likely to expand their majority significantly, he explained, a new Democratic president wouldn't need to worry so much about Republican opposition to his legislative agenda. Instead, keeping Democrats united behind him would be crucial, and nobody would be better suited to that task than the widely respected Daschle.

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