Obama transition begins as Senate majority widens

Nicholas and Finnegan are Times staff writers

As the scale of his mandate widened Thursday, Barack Obama began preparing for a rare wartime transfer of power, getting his first classified national security briefing, accepting an invitation to meet with President Bush next week and naming a White House chief of staff.

Rahm Emanuel, a Chicago congressman who is widely considered one of the Democratic Party’s sharpest strategists, accepted Obama’s offer to run the White House.

Obama spent part of the day returning calls to nine world leaders who had phoned to congratulate him on a historic victory that put his party firmly in command in Washington. Election results still dribbling in increased his odds of achieving his ambitious agenda. Obama can bank on solid majorities in the House and Senate, plus a decisive margin of victory.


Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon conceded defeat Wednesday, pushing the Democratic hold on the Senate to 57. And fresh tallies showed that Obama narrowly won North Carolina, which had not voted for a Democrat for president in 32 years.

With that pickup, Obama carried nine states the Republicans won four years ago, while his electoral vote victory over John McCain rose to 364 to 162. Missouri is the lone state still too close to call.

At the White House, the Bush administration is making plans for the transition. The Justice Department has already given security clearances to the president-elect’s transition team.

Bush told his staff Wednesday to see to it that the Obama team hits “the ground running.” The two men are to meet at the White House on Monday. On the agenda will be the Iraq war and the reeling financial markets.

“We face economic challenges that will not pause to let a new president settle in,” Bush told Cabinet members and other White House staff gathered on the South Lawn. “This will also be America’s first wartime presidential transition in four decades. We’re in a struggle against violent extremists determined to attack us, and they would like nothing more than to exploit this period of change to harm the American people.”

In a statement released by his campaign, Obama said: “Michelle and I look forward to meeting with President Bush and the first lady on Monday to begin the process of a smooth, effective transition. I thank him for reaching out in the spirit of bipartisanship that will be required to meet the many challenges we face as a nation.”


Obama spent his second straight day since the election largely outside public view.

After a morning workout at a private gym, he got his security briefing at FBI offices in Chicago, then spent several hours in meetings at the Aon building. He returned calls to world leaders, including President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain.

When Obama left in the late afternoon, a reporter asked how his meetings went. Obama gave a one-syllable reply: “Good.”

Today he is to hold his first news conference as president-elect after a meeting with a blue-chip cast of economic advisors. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett is expected to take part by phone. Two former Treasury secretaries are to attend: Robert E. Rubin and Lawrence H. Summers, a top candidate for the same job in an Obama administration. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is also scheduled to take part.

Obama is expected to lead a discussion about the nation’s troubling job losses and possible remedies. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has expressed support for passing a stimulus package in a lame-duck session of Congress. Obama’s team does not appear to have reached consensus on that approach.

One Obama advisor, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that it may be preferable to wait until the new president is sworn in before passing a stimulus package.

“Wait until the new president and the new team can put together a package that becomes a down payment on a broader investment agenda,” the advisor said. “That would be my preference.”


The top level of Obama’s White House is already taking shape.

David Axelrod, Obama’s campaign strategist and one of the architects of the victory Tuesday night, is expected to come in as a senior White House advisor. Robert Gibbs, Obama’s communications director, is expected to become White House press secretary.

Emanuel, who has three children between the ages of 8 and 11, hesitated before agreeing to be White House chief of staff. He told a Chicago TV station: “I have a lot to weigh -- the basis of public service, which I’ve given my life to, a career choice. And most importantly, what I want to do as a parent.”

The president’s top aide oversees his schedule and the White House operation. As the gatekeeper to the president, the job is one of the most powerful -- as well one of the most demanding -- in Washington.

The pick is an intriguing one. As Washington resumes go, Emanuel’s is impressive. He was a top advisor to President Clinton. In just five years, he rose to become the fourth-ranking House Democrat as head of the party’s caucus.

But Emanuel, 48, is also one of the toughest operatives in American politics, known for cutting oratory and partisan tactics. He alienated some Republicans while vaulting the Democrats back to power in the 2006 elections.

Prone to bursts of obscenities, Emanuel is known for flashing his right middle finger, which was partly severed when he was in high school. He has called himself “cutthroat” in deciding which congressional seats to contest. He once plunged a knife into a table over and over again, and cried out “Dead man!” each time as he ran down the names of political adversaries.


In choosing Emanuel, Obama entrusts his government to a savvy politician familiar with both the quirks of Capitol Hill and the workings of the executive branch.

But he also gets a man whose volatile temperament is quite the opposite of his own.

Grover Norquist, a conservative who heads Americans for Tax Reform, said of Emanuel: “Rahm is a rather bitter person. And he’s from Chicago. The challenge and concern about an Obama presidency was always that it would import Chicago traditions and values to D.C. Do you really want the federal government run the way Chicago city government is run?”

On the other side of the aisle, Howard Paster, a colleague of Emanuel in the Clinton White House, said in an interview: “One of the issues for a president is, do I pick someone with whom I have a good relationship, or someone who knows his way around Washington? President-elect Obama had an opportunity to pick someone who meets both criteria.”

Paster said that Republicans are judging Emanuel only by his role as a vigorous political adversary.

“That was his job,” he said. “They forget that when he was in the White House, he helped Bill Clinton build relationships with uniformed police officers and police on the streets and was never seen as one of the more liberal influences in the Clinton White House.”