Obama Mines Clinton Staff to Fill First Staff Jobs

After only two appointments, Republicans question Obama's commitment to change.

Nov. 7, 2008— -- In one of his first acts since being elected president, Barack Obama called on two former Clinton administration staffers to head his transition team and serve as chief of staff.

After a nearly two-year campaign, President-elect Obama has 77 days to hand-pick a Cabinet and advisers to help set and carry through his agenda -- a difficult task made all the more difficult by his interest in maintaining his campaign promise to change the culture of Washington.

As an indication of how tough that change might be, Obama's initial appointments of former Bill Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta to oversee his transition and former Clinton policy adviser Rep. Rahm Emanuel are being hailed by some as the right picks for the jobs and derided by others as more of the same.

"You can look at these choices in two ways," said ABC News political consultant Torie Clarke, herself a former Pentagon spokeswoman. "Barack Obama doesn't want to make the same mistakes Clinton made by not having enough experienced people on board. Obama needs seasoned hands who know Washington.

"On the other hand and, I think, more profoundly, there are some Republicans, Independents and moderates who believed him when he said, 'I want to change the culture. I want to reach across the aisle and have people representing different points of view in my administration.' It is still early and there are more choices to make," she said. "People are going to be watching very carefully because it's difficult to imagine a more partisan choice than Rahm Emanuel," an Illinois congressman.

  • Obama to Meet With Economic and Political Leaders
  • The Note: Obama Makes Economy First Priority
  • EXIT POLLS 2008: Results and Breakdown
  • Election Map: State-by-State Results
  • Complete Election Coverage
  • In addition to Podesta and Emanuel, a number of former Clinton staffers and Cabinet members have been named to the transition team, and three of the four names being floated as a potential treasury secretary have roots in the Clinton White House.

    The senior staff and advisery board of the transition team include 10 former Clinton officials, including former Commerce Secretary William Daley and Frederico Pena, who served as both secretary of transportation and energy.

    Obama's Advisors and Cabinet

    "The president-elect has to put together a team of the best people he can find who are like-minded that he can trust them to follow through on his orders," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked in the Eisenhower, Ford and Carter administrations and recently wrote a primer on presidential transitions called "What Do We Do Now?"

    "The president-elect shouldn't be worried about how his decision is going to play in the media or on Capitol Hill," he said. "Podesta has been putting together information on the transition in a comprehensive and serious way for a while. He is a logical person to move ahead with planning. You want someone who has been there and, as a former chief of staff, he gets the White House."

    The selection of Emanuel, a practitioner of no-holds-barred politics who's a veteran of Clinton's bitter battles with the "vast right-wing conspiracy" and impeachment proceedings, has already rattled some Republicans.

    "This is an ironic choice for a president-elect who has promised to change Washington, make politics more civil, and govern from the center," said House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.

    Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant echoed Boehner's sentiment.

    "Barack Obama's first decision as president-elect undermines his promise to 'heal the divides,'" Conant said. "The White House needs a chief of staff, not a chief campaigner like Emanuel."

    Emanuel was instrumental in organizing much of the success House Democrats saw in 2006, but he has a reputation for being a partisan tough.

    "He has a hard edge, but Obama doesn't need someone with a soft touch," said Donna Brazile, an ABC News political consultant and Democratic strategist.

    That the Republicans don't like Emanuel should matter little to the president-elect, said Republican strategist Ed Rollins, who served in the Reagan White House.

    "The Republicans don't matter," he said. "They're in the wilderness and they're unimportant to the new president in terms of moving his legislation forward."

    The president appoints about 3,000 employees but few picks are as important as whom he selects as his chief of staff, Hess said.

    New President's Chief-of-Staff

    "The chief of staff is the most important advisor the president has," Hess said. "It's not his job to make people happy; it's his job to make sure the trains run on time. It has nothing to do with change or no change. It has nothing to do with old guard, new guard, top guard, bottom guard. His job is to make sure the president's programs are moving forward."

    Hess said that Ronald Reagan had one of the smoothest transitions, Clinton and Jimmy Carter had two of the worst.

    In an attempt to distance himself from Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford by not hiring Washington insiders, Carter looked to old associates in Georgia. As his congressional liaison he appointed Frank Moore, whose only prior experience had been lobbying the legislature in Atlanta.

    Clinton, in his memoirs, admitted he spent so much time "micromanaging the Cabinet appointments" that he didn't appoint his first chief of staff Leon Panetta until six days before the inauguration.

    One chair at the Cabinet table that might remain intact and in the hands of a Republican is the one occupied by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.