WASHINGTON – President-elect Barack Obama is forming a White House leadership team that combines experienced Washington insiders who can help build a bridge with Congress and trusted associates who share his Chicago roots.
The West Wing appointments that Obama has announced in recent days stand in contrast to those of George W. Bush, who relied heavily on fellow Texans for top posts. They had virtually no experience dealing with Congress, nor did the former Texas governor who was their boss.
Obama comes to the Oval Office with an ambitious list of campaign promises that will require Capitol Hill’s cooperation and approval, and his team is heavy on the legislative experience that Obama is lacking. He resigned his Illinois Senate seat Sunday after just under four years of service, half of which he spent out on the presidential campaign trail.
During that time, Obama had Pete Rouse as his Senate chief of staff to take care of his business on the Hill. On Sunday, Obama named Rouse to be a senior adviser in his White House. Rouse has 24 years of experience as a top Senate aide, also running the offices of former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and Obama’s Illinois colleague, Democrat Sen. Dick Durbin.
Other names that have begun to roll out in recently come with varying degrees of Washington experience. Obama is drawing on accomplished Chicago friends, longtime congressional aides and former Clinton administration officials, including some with ties to the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The new chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., combines the Chicago roots and the legislative connections. Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain held the same role for Vice President Al Gore.
Obama has picked Mona Sutphen and Jim Messina as his deputy chiefs of staff. Like Rouse, Messina has served as chief of staff for three different lawmakers — Sens. Max Baucus, D-Mont, Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y. — and has a vast network of relationships to show for it that he can tap on Obama’s behalf.
Philip Schiliro, who has more 25 years experience working for Congress, is Obama’s liaison to Capitol Hill.
Biden, a longtime senator from Delaware, has said he intends to be a frequent voice on the Hill and use his 36 experience as a lawmaker to promote the administration’s agenda. That’s a departure from Vice President Dick Cheney, who only appeared occasionally on the Hill to meet with Republican members and cast a tie-breaking vote.
Obama is keeping some campaign advisers close in the West Wing. He has named longtime confidant Valerie Jarrett as a senior White House adviser and is expected to bring along Robert Gibbs as press secretary and David Axelrod as another senior adviser.
The senior adviser title is a vague one, but those who fill it can have held vast authority. Karl Rove and Karen Hughes had the title at one time in Bush’s White House, and each had very different but influential role — Rove was the political strategist with a big say over policy while Hughes was the chief communications specialist.
Obama is expected to name campaign adviser Gregory Craig, who was President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial lawyer, as White House counsel. Sutphen, too, had a role in the Lewinsky scandal that led to Clinton’s impeachment.
Sutphen is a foreign policy expert who has had several federal government positions, including as an aide to Bill Richardson when he was ambassador to the United Nations. In that role, Sutphen helped conduct a 45-minute job interview with Lewinsky in late 1997 at the request of John Podesta, who had the same deputy White House chief of staff title for Clinton that she is about to fill for Obama.
The interview led to Sutphen’s offering Lewinsky a job at Richardson’s direction, shortly before the scandal was about to break publicly. Lewinsky ultimately declined the offer, but Sutphen’s name ended up in the Starr Report because of the interview she conducted with Richardson and another one of his aides.
Sutphen most recently has been at Stonebridge International, an Washington-based consulting firm that advises multinational corporations on worldwide business opportunities. She has previously worked as a lobbyist for the firm and on behalf of food distributor Angliss International of London. Her brother is David Sutphen, a top entertainment industry lobbyist for Viacom and the Recording Industry Association of America.
Obama, making his Senate resignation official, said in a letter published in Illinois newspapers Sunday that he was “ending one journey to begin another. … But I will never forget and will be forever grateful to the men and women of this great state who made my life in public service possible.”
In his published letter, Obama quoted Abraham Lincoln, “another son of Illinois” who had left for Washington, “a greater man who spoke to a nation far more divided.”
Lincoln, Obama wrote, said of his home: “To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.”
Obama wrote, “I feel the same, and like Lincoln, I ask for your support, your prayers, and for us to ‘confidently hope that all will yet be well.'”
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