Challenge changes

President-elect Barack Obama starts transition process with appointment of Rahm Emanuel to chief of staff

Election 2008

November 07, 2008|By Paul West | Paul West,

Washington - In running a successful national campaign, Barack Obama laid down guidelines that came to be seen as hallmarks of his leadership style. He prizes loyalty, discretion, teamwork and selflessness, say those who have worked with him.

But as he shapes a new administration, the president-elect is dealing with a more complex challenge and a different set of needs.

"Governing is different from campaigning, and running a White House is different from running a campaign," said Steve Elmendorf, deputy campaign manager for 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry.

Obama made his first major appointment yesterday, naming Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Chicago as chief of staff, a pivotal position in any White House. In a statement, Obama described his new top aide as a "good friend" who "understands how to get things done in Washington."

Emanuel, who turns 49 this month, was a senior White House staff member under Bill Clinton and ranks fourth in the House Democratic leadership.

He has a well-earned reputation as a political street fighter, a trait which appears to violate one of the best-known elements of the Obama style.

The president-elect displays a "penchant for a conflict-free environment. They called it a no-drama environment," said Ronald Walters, a government professor at the University of Maryland. "I'm surprised. [Emanuel] is the antithesis of a lot of this."

But Elmendorf said Emanuel was well-suited to bridge the policy, political and communications arms of the administration and make sure the government stays true to the goals of the campaign.

Martha Kumar, a Towson University political scientist, said a chief of staff needs to enforce discipline on the president's behalf.

"That's particularly important if you have a lot of people going in different directions, and you want to make sure you are coordinated in purpose and in timing of what's going on," she said.

A clue to the way Obama hopes to govern, she said, came from a private remark picked up by a network TV microphone last summer.

Obama told a British politician he wanted to avoid getting bogged down in details, because "if what you're trying to do is micromanage and solve everything, then you end up being a dilettante."

He said it was important to stay focused on the big picture, "but you have to have enough knowledge to make good judgments about the choices that are presented to you."

Obama has a reputation for listening carefully to others in meetings and prodding them for answers, but keeping his opinions to himself. Some have wondered whether a desire to air all sides of an issue could turn the Obama White House into the home of interminable policy debates and delayed decisions, like the early Clinton administration.

Obama also has promised to make Washington more transparent, which could play an important role in the way he governs.

One of his initiatives as a senator, in partnership with conservative Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, was a measure to make federal contracts searchable online. During the primaries, he said that, as president, he would negotiate a health-care overhaul plan in public and televise the event on C-SPAN.

His commitment to transparency has been questioned, however. Critics attacked his campaign's refusal to reveal the names of donors who gave less than $200. The law doesn't require it, but his opponent, John McCain, put all of his donors' names online.

Another campaign trademark Obama will try to carry into office: a strong desire for control.

To keep a tight grip on his message, he discouraged outside organizations from running advertising campaigns on his behalf. The press corps that covered his two-year journey to the White House got less access to Obama than any presidential contender in living memory, which made journalists unhappy but may have reduced the risk of unflattering publicity.

What got decided inside his campaign headquarters stayed inside. Unauthorized leaks of information were extremely rare, reflecting a degree of control seldom seen in presidential politics.

"His campaign was astonishingly disciplined about not leaking," said Bill Galston, a policy adviser in the Clinton White House.

A White House staff, like a campaign team, is "a personally created organization," Galston said. Obama will put a premium on "skillful teamwork. That is, people who are not only very good at their individual jobs, but who work together with a minium of fuss, muss and bother. ... He'll be looking for people who are capable of thinking strategically as well as acting tactically."

Those appear to be some of the strengths of Emanuel, who may well become the second most powerful person in Washington next year.

Elmendorf, who was a top Democratic staff aide in the House of Representatives, watched Emanuel become chairman of the Democratic caucus, which includes all of the party's House members.

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