Obama begins to form a team

Nicholas and Hamburger are Times staff writers.

President-elect Barack Obama began to assemble his new administration Wednesday, offering the White House chief of staff job to a hard-charging member of the Democratic congressional leadership and announcing the heads of a transition staff that will help fill his Cabinet and lay out an agenda for his four-year term.

A day after his decisive victory over Arizona Republican John McCain, Obama spent a rare day in seclusion, exercising at a private gym near his home and later presiding over meetings and a conference call to thank his campaign staff.

He also made one of the most consequential personnel choices he will face, asking Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) to be his chief of staff, according to campaign and congressional officials. There was no indication of Emanuel’s response as of Wednesday night.

The White House chief of staff is often a power broker in his own right, making sure the president’s decisions are properly executed and acting as a gatekeeper to the Oval Office. As former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Emanuel is credited with the party’s success in regaining control of Congress in 2006.


Smart and intense, the 48-year-old Emanuel is a veteran of Bill Clinton’s White House. He is among the most charismatic figures on Capitol Hill, revered by many Democrats for restoring the party’s clout and loathed by some Republicans for his partisan tactics. In the multitude of Emanuel stories, one stands out: the time he boxed up a dead fish and sent it to a political foe, “Godfather"-style.

Obama’s transition staff will be based in Washington with a satellite office in Chicago. The president-elect plans to spend most of the 2 1/2 - month transition period in Chicago, flying to Washington as needed.

Obama “can count on complete cooperation from my administration as he makes the transition to the White House,” President Bush said Wednesday. He congratulated Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden on what he called “their impressive victory.” As part of the transition, they will start to receive daily national intelligence briefings.

Advisors said that Obama would announce several White House staff appointments today. A priority will be filling two Cabinet positions: Homeland Security and Treasury. With the economy foundering and national security a perennial worry, Obama wants those posts filled as soon as mid-November, one advisor said.

Obama allies have been quietly plotting a transition for months, anticipating an election victory. On Wednesday, the campaign announced that it would be headed by a trio of co-chairs: John Podesta, Valerie Jarrett and Pete Rouse.

Podesta is a former chief of staff under Clinton. Jarrett is one of Obama’s closest friends and advisors. Rouse is Obama’s former chief of staff in the Senate.

The transition staff is stacked with alumni from Clinton’s presidency, underscoring one of Obama’s dilemmas: He promised a fresh, bipartisan style -- but in setting up a new government, he also wants the expertise of seasoned Democrats who know what the job entails.

Advisory board members include Carol Browner, head of the Environmental Protection Agency under Clinton; William Daley, a Clinton Commerce secretary and brother of Chicago’s mayor; Michael Froman, who was chief of staff to former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin; and Federico Pena, ex-Transportation and Energy secretary.


Resumes are pouring in. The unofficial headquarters of the transition staff had been the Center for American Progress, a left-of-center Washington think tank where Podesta is based.

“It’s been a deluge that has already overwhelmed my home e-mail account,” said Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration who works at the center. He has advised the Obama campaign but is not officially part of the transition operation.

It could be mid- to late December before Obama nominates the bulk of his Cabinet members, an aide said Wednesday. But candidates’ names are starting to emerge. One person familiar with the transition said potential nominees for Treasury secretary included Lawrence Summers, who served in the same post under Clinton and advised Obama on economic issues; and Timothy Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

A top candidate for secretary of Health and Human Services is former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. He is author of the book “Critical: What We Can Do About the Health-Care Crisis.”


“That’s heavy and that’s real,” a senior public health official said of Daschle’s prospects.

A leading candidate for Environmental Protection chief is Howard A. Learner, founder of the Environmental Law & Policy Center and an environmental advisor to Obama.

Union officials already are pressing to install favorites in the Labor secretary job. Two prospects are former Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and David E. Bonior. Labor officials also are discussing pro-labor executive orders they want to see signed in the first hours of an Obama presidency.

As Obama’s government begins to take shape, powerful interest groups in Washington are maneuvering for advantage.


The National Assn. of Manufacturers and the AFL-CIO held dueling news conferences Wednesday in Washington to promote their often conflicting agendas.

The sunnier of the two meetings took place at AFL-CIO headquarters, across Lafayette Square from the White House. Union President John Sweeney touted labor’s role in Obama’s victory.

He announced that the AFL-CIO’s top priority was passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for unions to organize and collectively bargain.

In a separate news conference, the manufacturers president, former Michigan Republican Gov. John Engler, signaled resistance. Speaking on a panel with other business advocates, Engler warned that it would be dangerous to begin a new administration with a dispute over labor law.


For now, the Emanuel selection is causing the biggest stir. Republicans are mixed in their verdicts. Richard N. Bond, former head of the Republican National Committee, said he hoped Emanuel would stay in Congress rather than help the new president. Bond said that Emanuel, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, is savvy enough to keep Obama from self-destructing.

“I fervently pray he stays right where he is,” he said. “He’s pound-for-pound the smartest guy I know in politics. And he would absolutely prevent Obama from the overreach which otherwise is destined to occur” -- to the ultimate political benefit, Bond hopes, of the GOP.

Other Republicans see Emanuel as too combative a figure for the job, especially given Obama’s promise to end the partisan gamesmanship. As a former head of the party’s congressional campaign operations, Emanuel’s mission was defeating Republicans -- and he did it with relish.

A Republican congressional leadership aide, who did not want to be quoted by name talking about a member of Congress, said: “President-elect Obama campaigned on the promise of moving beyond politics and bringing real change to Washington. Rahm Emanuel is one of the most partisan Democrats of the Clinton and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi years.”


With election results still dribbling in, the magnitude of Obama’s victory is becoming more clear.

He beat McCain 52% to 46% nationwide, accordingly to nearly complete returns, making Obama the first Democrat since Lyndon B. Johnson to win more than a bare majority of the popular vote.

The Illinois senator has won 28 states and the District of Columbia, giving him at least 349 electoral votes, well in excess of the 270 needed to win the White House. One of the hardest-fought states, Missouri, was tipping toward Sen. John McCain’s column late Wednesday. It would give the Arizonan 173 electoral votes.

The only other state outstanding was North Carolina, a longtime Republican bastion, where Obama ran an aggressive and unexpectedly strong campaign. He was ahead by about 12,000 votes out of more than 4.2 million cast, with a number of provisional ballots still to be tallied. The state has 15 electoral votes.


In Congress, Democrats picked up at least five Senate seats, with four races still to be decided, and gained at least 19 seats in the House, with the outcome of some contests still pending.

Times staff writers Mark Z. Barabak, P.J. Huffstutter and David Willman contributed to this report.




An Obama Cabinet

President-elect Barack Obama set to work Wednesday assembling his Cabinet, which includes the heads of the 15 executive departments. Other officials, such as the vice president and the president’s chief of staff, are considered Cabinet-rank. The tradition of a Cabinet dates back to George Washington. Here are some of the people who have been mentioned for top spots in Obama’s Cabinet:


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White House Chief of Staff

Obama has offered Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel the post, but if Emanuel declines, Obama may go for one of the following candidates:

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Times reporting by Kate Linthicum