Obama Pressed on Cabinet, Policy

Obama strives to keep the peace with groups pressing him on Cabinet and policy.

November 18, 2008, 2:34 PM

Nov. 19, 2008— -- President-elect Barack Obama won the election with the proud and aggressive backing of a diverse array of interest groups -- many of them starved for influence during the eight years the Democrats have been out of power.

Now all he has to do is keep them all happy.

Obama's transition team has been inundated with a flurry of public and private advice on Cabinet appointments, legislative strategy and policy initiatives. Much of the input is coming from organizations that believe they contributed substantially to Obama's election, and they're counting on him to make good on his promises.

"You have to seize on these opportunities in history to do something big," said Jacki Schechner, national communications director for Health Care for America Now.

On Tuesday, the health care advocacy group launched a TV advertising campaign prodding the incoming administration and the new Congress to act on health care, even though Obama won't be inaugurated for two months.

"I'd like to think we're on the right track, but it doesn't hurt to poke a little and say, 'Hey, remember, we're here,'" Schechner said. "We can't wait any longer."

Many of the groups -- including those pushing health care expansions -- are asking Obama to deliver on campaign promises that he and his aides say he's intent on keeping.

But the unsolicited and sometimes conflicting advice represents an early leadership challenge to Obama, who is deep in the process of selecting his own team and settling on an initial legislative strategy at a time when the economy seems likely to subsume all other issues.

Obama also faces an additional challenge: He ran on a platform of independence from Washington interest groups and doesn't want to be seen as too beholden to any organizations.

The way he manages relationships with interest groups may be key to his success in Washington as he seeks to bring a new tone of bipartisan cooperation to enact an ambitious agenda.

"When you haven't controlled the administration for eight years, there's a lot of pent-up demand," said Allan Cigler, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who specializes in interest-group politics.

"There's going to be a heck of a lot of pressure," he said. "The operating word for Obama is going to be: Patience. Change is coming -- but hold on."

Obama May Hold Off on Cabinet Decisions Until After Thanksgiving

Obama transition officials are not commenting on specific requests or advice offered by outside groups. While transition activities have gone smoothly so far by all accounts, so far Obama has focused on White House staffing decisions before turning to his Cabinet, and despite indications of fast action, he may not have any of his Cabinet secretaries in place until after Thanksgiving.

The demands flowing into the Obama-Biden transition offices are too broad and diverse to all be satisfied. Several prominent Hispanic groups say New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson should be Obama's secretary of state, notwithstanding Obama's discussions with Sen. Hillary Clinton to fill that post.

Women's groups, meanwhile, are touting Clinton's possible appointment and say not enough female candidates are appearing on public short lists for Cabinet slots. At least one such group says Obama shouldn't choose Lawrence Summers to serve at Treasury, citing comments he made as Harvard's president that were perceived as belittling to women.

Antiwar groups say keeping Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his post -- as Obama is widely rumored to be considering -- would belie his promise for a major change of course in the war in Iraq. Obama's promise to name at least one Republican to his Cabinet has some Democratic-aligned organizations worried about which department may have a GOP tilt.

Then there's policy items. To name just a few, Obama is being urged to quickly push immigration reform; close Guantanamo Bay; mandate reduced carbon emissions; make vast expansions in health care; repeal executive orders opposed by gay-rights, environmental and abortion-rights groups; reverse Department of Labor and Department of Justice policies that are perceived as hostile to labor unions and immigrants; initiate a swift troop withdrawal from Iraq; and find resources for another fiscal stimulus bill that includes help for the troubled auto industry.

Organizations haven't been shy about making their wishes known. After an election in which Obama won a larger than expected share of the Latino vote, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund called on Obama to name Richardson -- a former United Nations ambassador -- as his secretary of state.

The group also wants Obama to tackle immigration reform and reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act -- before the 2010 congressional elections.

"There is no better diplomat in the country than Bill Richardson," John Trasvina, Maldef's president and general counsel. "Immigration is probably the single most important issue to us. We would want to see reform in the first two years of administration."

The League of United Latin American Citizens also wants Richardson in the Cabinet and is recommending labor leader Linda Chavez-Thompson for secretary of labor and former New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid as Interior secretary.

The National Organization for Women has a Cabinet wish list as well, including Clinton at State, and FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair at Treasury. The group's leaders have made it clear that they don't want Summers in Obama's Cabinet.

"We want people who recognize that they need to put women in the picture," said NOW President Kim Gandy. "My experience with [Obama] is that he does value women's rights and wants to see women treated equally. That said, I am concerned Larry Summers' name is there for two reasons. One is he seems to have played a significant role in getting us where we are [in the economic crisis]. I don't know whether we want the fox to be building the henhouse. And then the comments he made about possibly women's inferior abilities."

Leaders of several interest groups say their hopes for quick action on their priorities are colored by the experiences of the Clinton administration. A series of major priorities -- including health care reform -- never became reality in the 1990s, in part because Democrats didn't capitalize on early momentum. The Democrats lost control of Congress just two years into President Clinton's first term.

Schechner, of Health Care for America Now, said her group feels invested in the Obama presidency after spending $4.3 million on congressional races, much of it focused on attacking Sen. John McCain's health care plan.

"We're at a time in history now where we can actually do something that is broad and comprehensive. I don't think this is the time for something incremental," she said.

Nancy Keenan, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, said she's counting on Obama to reverse a series of steps taken by the Bush administration that sought to advance its anti-abortion agenda.

Then, she said, the Obama administration can go further -- tackling issues such as birth-control pricing and insurance availability, and age-appropriate sexual education programs.

"We need to reverse some of the Bush administration's policies before we move on to more pro-active agendas," Keenan said.

Regarding policy, Cigler said Obama's challenges will come when two influential interest groups have goals that aren't precisely aligned. For instance, he said, some unions may resist environmental measures that could harm job creation.

One big policy question for Obama will be whether he supports so-called "card check" legislation, a top priority of labor unions that is vehemently opposed by business groups. The measure would make it far easier for work forces to unionize through a method that employers say would strip workers of the right to secret ballots.

Cigler said the economy may be the main vehicle Obama uses to temper the desires of some of the interest groups that backed his candidacy.

"The economic situation is so overwhelming that he can put a lot of this stuff off," he said. "It's not a situation where you can demand. You can request."

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