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Obama asks, candidates reply – in detail

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2008-11-24

Snagging top spots in the US administration is not easy, with a questionnaire requiring applicants to delve deep into their pasts. It’s US President-elect Barack Obama’s scandal-averting measure. The question is, will the questionnaire work?

On the campaign trail, Barack Obama oversaw such a cool, disciplined operation, that he promptly earned the monicker “No-drama Obama”. Now that he is just weeks away from taking office, the US President-elect seems just as determined to avoid scandals during his presidency.


Candidates applying for senior posts in the new US administration have to answer an intensive seven-page questionnaire complete with 63 disclosure requests on subjects ranging from professional backgrounds and affiliations, to past lawsuits, tax and financial information. A special section of the questionnaire even seeks details of any domestic help the candidates may have hired in their lifetime.


The latter is no doubt a result of the lessons learned from “Nannygate,” when then President-elect Bill Clinton had to drop Zoe Baird, his Attorney General pick, when it emerged that she had hired illegal immigrants to serve as her nanny and chauffeur.


But filling this questionnaire is a time and labor-intensive process. Current resumes, for instance, aren't enough. Any CV or biographical statements issued during the past 10 years need to be furnished. Potentially explosive diaries must also be noted and URLs of any website featuring candidates - such as Facebook, MySpace and other social networking sites – must be noted. Not to forget: a list of "all aliases or 'handles'" applicants have used on the Internet.


It “may be the most extensive — some say invasive — application ever,” said the New York Times, in its Nov. 13 article breaking the story.


“It's terribly invasive, but it's also become essential,” responds Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. “Is this extreme? Yes, it is. But President-elect Barack Obama has been handed a plateful of problems by the previous administration and the last thing he needs are controversies.”


New chips in Washington’s favourite parlour game


During the transition period between his election victory and his Jan. 20, 2009 inauguration, Obama has to put together his cabinet as well as his team of aides and advisors in a process that's commonly called “vetting”.


The process, which is being handled by the Obama Transition Office, requires “vettors” to pick the best-qualified candidates and ensure that their past records are squeaky clean, with no potential embarrassments for the White House.


Jamie S. Gorelick, a former US Deputy Attorney General who has vetted candidates for top Democratic posts in the past, notes that the vetting process for senior office has always been “extremely exhaustive”. But, she concedes, the latest Obama questionnaire, “certainly asks questions that have not been asked before.”


In rumour-rife US political circles, the vetting process is often referred to as "Washington's favorite parlour game".  And in Washington parlour parlance, Gorelick's name was floated for the US Attorney General post in Beltway circles, including the trusted New York Times.  


But the chips are now on Eric Holder, another former Deputy Attorney General, who has been conditionally offered the post.


When asked about her name appearing on Beltway shortlists, Gorelick responded with the characteristic toughness that earned her the title of one of the “greatest Washington lawyers” by the prestigious Legal Times. “Nobody called me,” she told FRANCE 24 dismissively.


Biding time in the ‘honey pot’


There’s a lot of new ground being covered by the Obama transition questionnaire, such as emails, social networking URLs and Internet aliases. These are hardly surprising for a candidate who ran one of the most technologically-advanced presidential campaigns in US history.


What has raised eyebrows though, are the specific queries about past jobs with mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. In the past, when the White House reins switched from either Republican or Democratic hands, out-of-work administration officials tended to bid their time in these organizations, waiting for power to switch back to their camp.


But in these economically fraught times, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are toxic resume items.


And rightly so, says Sabato.


“That was the honey pot, where a lot of people made a lot of money,” said Sabato. “They will be and they deserve to be grilled.”


Even Gorelick, who served as vice chairwoman of Fannie Mae from 1998 to 2003, agrees. “I think it's completely appropriate for applicants to be asked about their connection to a federally-funded entity,” she said.


Lobbyists need not apply


Lobbyists are another target. Again, an unsurprising turn given that during his campaign of “change,” Obama vowed that lobbyists “won't find a job in my White House.”


Underscoring his determination to rid his administration of these often reviled figures, the questionnaire repeatedly asks applicants if they or their spouses ever registered as a lobbyist or “received payment for acting as a lobbyist”.


Dan Gerstein, a political communications consultant, Democratic Party strategist and former senior campaign advisor to Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman, says this is a reaction to George W. Bush’s administration.


“The biggest problem with the Bush administration is that they were all at the other extreme,” said Gerstein. “They displayed a remarkable degree of arrogance when it came to public concerns over ethics and regulating conflicts of interest with business and with big government.”


But he warned that an anti-lobbyist witch-hunt could be counterproductive. “I don't believe that lobbyists are inherently bad,” said Gerstein. “Lobbying is enshrined in the [US] Constitution – it plays a vital role in giving a voice to different interest groups. The problem arises when money and influence is used to tilt the democratic process. I think it was unwise for Barack Obama during the campaign to say no to lobbyists in government because there are a lot of smart people who have been lobbyists and it shouldn't disqualify them from government.”


Getting ‘people with massive egos’ to ponder their past


While there’s little doubt that the questionnaire tries to address every possible minefield that could erupt in a scandalous explosion for the Obama presidency, the central question though, is will it work?


But that, says Sabato, is beside the point.


“This is to cover them,” he said, referring to the Obama Transition Office. “If there is a controversy, they can always say we asked, but the candidate didn't provide the information. Besides, for senior administrative posts, it's important to get people to consider what they have done that could embarrass the president. Remember, these are people with massive egos and they are not used to considering their frailties.”


Earlier this month, the Obama transition vetting process failed to catch the alleged links between a transition team member and an extremist Hindu group.

Date created : 2008-11-19