Obama transition bumps up against Congress’ egos
Barack Obama walked the halls of the Senate for four years, and in his earliest decisions after the presidential election assembled a coterie of key advisors with deep roots in Congress.
He is the first president elected directly from Congress since John F. Kennedy -- leading to high expectations that he would know how to handle congressional egos.
So it came as a surprise that Obama’s first real workweek in Washington as president-elect was marked by collisions with his former colleagues, including some who helped him win the White House.
In naming a CIA director and in shaping his massive economic stimulus plan, Obama managed to rankle some lawmakers from his own party by stepping crosswise of their procedures, prerogatives and personal feelings.
Now, as the incoming president moves into the details of governing and begins in earnest to try to revive the ailing economy, the question is whether last week’s ruffled feathers have been smoothed and whether there are more tensions ahead.
Some clashes could be the inevitable stumbles of a new relationship. Others may reflect contending visions of how to do business, involving basic differences between the Obama viewpoint and what the president-elect refers to as the Washington way.
“I do see a culture clash,” said Dee Dee Myers, a White House press secretary for President Clinton. “For a campaign that got kudos for being as well-run as Obama’s, they probably thought they were going to come to Washington and continue with that successful framework. In many ways they have. But there’s also a lot of acclimating that’s going on too.”
The week began with Obama antagonizing some influential members of Congress with his surprise choice of Leon E. Panetta, a former Clinton White House official, to head the CIA. Days before the nomination was official, word reached Capitol Hill, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was beginning her tenure as the first woman to head the intelligence committee.
She said she hadn’t been consulted on Panetta and was thinking about opposing his nomination. The departing committee chairman, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), also raised concerns about the choice.
It was an inauspicious start to the week, coming with word that the Obama transition team was readying a massive tax cut component to his economic stimulus package to lure Republican support for the broader plan.
The tax cut strategy drew some pointed comments from Democratic lawmakers, who are less enthusiastic about tax cuts and suggested that their votes shouldn’t be taken for granted. As they emerged from a private meeting of the Senate Finance Committee at midweek, several expressed skepticism about two tax cuts taking shape in the Obama plan.
Both missteps were corrected by week’s end. After Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden called Feinstein to apologize, she reversed her position and supported the Panetta nomination.
And Lawrence H. Summers, Obama’s national economic advisor, met with Democrats on the finance committee to convey that their message had been received. Obama on Friday said that he would work with lawmakers to “hone and refine” his economic recovery plan, signaling his intent to respond to Democratic concerns about the plan as it takes shape.
“If members of Congress have good ideas, if they can identify a project for me that will create jobs in an efficient way that does not hamper our ability over the long term to get control of our deficit, that is good for the economy, then I’m going to accept it,” Obama said in a news conference.
Obama certainly isn’t the first incoming president to stumble in his early dealings with Congress. President Carter’s dismissal of Washington norms resulted in a rocky relationship that hindered his agenda throughout his administration. President Clinton struggled with lawmakers even when he had a Democratic Congress, just as President Bush grew detached from fellow Republicans.
Obama was mindful of the week’s perils and, in several cases, managed to resolve the conflicts.
But others remain in play to varying degrees of tension.
For one thing, even some Senate committees had to scramble to learn Obama’s Cabinet choices. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee, led by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), never got official notice of two Cabinet nominees within its jurisdiction: Energy Secretary-nominee Steven Chu and Interior Secretary-nominee Ken Salazar.
Rather, the staff of the committee pestered aides on the Obama transition team for clues as to whom the picks might be, ultimately ferreting out the names through their own efforts.
“Did Bingaman receive a phone call from Obama, Biden or [transition co-chairman John] Podesta? No, he did not,” a committee aide said. “We were very curious and wanted to keep our chairman informed. At our initiative, we pressed these [Obama staff] guys pretty hard. And through breaking news and leaks and our own undisclosed sources and through our own people working on the inside, we did know in advance.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said Obama did not alert her before announcing two major environmental picks: Lisa Jackson, his nominee for Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and Carol Browner, the new climate change czar. Boxer leads the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
“Maybe it’s because he didn’t want a lot of people knowing his choices, didn’t want to leak things out,” Boxer said. “That could be. But I think the chair of a committee can be trusted.”
Likewise, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), a conservative member of the House Appropriations Committee -- which will draft a large portion of the stimulus bill -- said he was frustrated by the lack of information available about the stimulus package.
“I’m very disappointed. I’ve read more in the public media than I’ve learned as a member of Congress,” he said. “I’d be very interested in tax relief. I want to be part of it. But I have not been invited to any of these classic backroom meetings.”
House Democratic Caucus Chairman John B. Larson (D-Conn.) heard that comment and joked, “You sound just like members of my caucus.”
Another potentially troublesome point of discussion is what to do about the government’s $700-billion bailout of the financial sector. The House could act as early as this week to set tougher restrictions on recipients of the bailout money, even as the Obama team crafts its own set of rules.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, said Friday that he had been working closely with the Obama transition team on legislation and that he trusted the Obama staff to run the program effectively.
Still, he said, “We intend to trust but verify.”
As Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy (D-R.I.) said last week, “We worked hard to get Obama elected. We’re all in this together. . . . But we’re also not going to necessarily be a rubber stamp.”
Back in Chicago for the last two years, Obama’s team has operated as a tight cadre of insiders who famously exercised control over its message and image. If the campaign officials weren’t confirming something, it could scarcely be confirmed through other sources.
After the president-elect’s first full week of doing business in Washington, though, members of that team are facing a new reality: They’re reading about their own business in Capitol Hill releases and news accounts. They’re bumping up against Hill-sized egos that operate on their own terms.
Former White House spokeswoman Myers thinks one person actually can influence Washington culture, arguing that Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan both did so.
“It’s absolutely possible,” Myers said. Obama “can do a lot to set a tone, to say, ‘I expect this; it’s important.’ ”
She said the moment might be right.
Janet Hook and Jim Puzzanghera in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.
First up: economic stimulus package
Obama urges Congress to act quickly on his plan, which could end up costing $1 trillion. NATION, A10
Get our Essential Politics newsletter
The latest news, analysis and insights from our politics team.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.