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Obama begins to form a team

The president-elect names a transition crew and asks Rep. Rahm Emanuel to fill a key White House role.

November 06, 2008|Peter Nicholas and Tom Hamburger | Nicholas and Hamburger are Times staff writers.

WASHINGTON AND CHICAGO — 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.

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