Every four years, a high-stakes game kicks off in the annals of US power when politicians, career mandarins, policy wonks and sundry power-seekers jockey for positions in a new administration.
Often referred to as “Washington’s favorite parlour game,” the process of selecting, vetting and hiring the country’s new power-brokers is a blood sport played out with genteel decorum.
In the 77 days between his November 4, 2008 election and his January 20, 2009 inauguration, US president-elect Barack Obama has to put together his cabinet as well as his team of aides and advisors. Not even a president-elect who shattered records and ran on a ticket of change can alter the basic rules of this game.
What’s different this time though, is that the ball is being lobbied not so much on Washington’s Massachusetts Avenue or some of the US capital’s affluent suburbs, but in the Loop, Chicago’s downtown commercial district.
From their offices in the city’s Kluczynski Federal Building, Obama’s newly formed transitional team is busy vetting cabinet candidates and preparing the new administration’s initial political moves.
“The political universe, at this moment at least, is in Chicago rather than Washington DC,” says John Wilson, a former student of Obama at the University of Chicago Law School and author of the book, 'Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest.' “It’s very unusual because normally everything centres around DC.”
A high-speed game, with some leaks
Another distinctive feature of the Obama transition team is the high speed at which they have got the ball rolling.
Just hours after his acceptance speech at Grant Park on Tuesday night, Obama announced the key figures in his transition team.
These include several political veterans with close ties to Chicago, such as John Podesta, a Chicagoan who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, and Valerie Jarrett, a Chicago businesswoman who has previously worked for Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, as well as current mayor, Richard M. Daley.
One of Obama’s closest campaign aides, Jarrett helped manage a professional, tight-lipped campaign office in the run-up to the November 4 election. She did not, however, succeed in stemming a leak just a day after the historic election, when US media networks reported that Obama had asked Rahm Emanuel to be his chief of staff. Emanuel has since accepted the post.
‘Rahmbo’ and the Chicago Democratic machine
A Chicago-born, Illinois Congressman, Emanuel is known for his pugnacious, Chicago politics-style, one that has earned him the nickname “Rahmbo” in political circles.
“Emanuel is the shining example of the take-no-prisoners Chicago Democratic machine, the winning-is-everything organisation that morphed into the Obama campaign,” wrote Linda Hirshman, from the Massachusetts-based Brandeis University, in the British daily, The Guardian, before going on to add, “It shows that Obama is prepared to fight.”
Known for his foul mouth and nine fingers (he lost a digit after a motor accident) Emanuel was Bill Clinton’s financial director during the 1992 presidential campaign before going on to serve as a senior advisor in the Clinton administration.
The speed at which the Obama transition team is working comes as no surprise to many political experts, who point to Clinton’s disastrous 1992 transition, when the then president-elect announced his White House staff just five days before his inauguration.
“A lot of Obama’s people are veterans of the Clinton administration in 1992, during that terrible transition,” notes Wilson. “They don’t want to repeat those errors.”
Clintonites come back to Washington
One of Obama’s greatest assets on the campaign trail was his image as a unifier, his ability to listen to all sides and to compromise. But some of his supporters worry that this asset might prove to be too much of a good thing for the White House.
Some of the names circulating on the political rumour mill have raised concerns among some of Obama’s progressive supporters. Larry Summers, a former US Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, for instance, is widely tipped to be picked for the Treasury Secretary post.
It’s a prospect that dismays Wilson. A former Harvard University president, Summers was forced to quit his post in 2006, following a controversial speech on gender differences and women’s aptitude in math and sciences.
“It’s baffling to me that Obama might consider putting in place a gaffe-machine, a person with dubious leadership skills and a proponent of the sort of free market proposals that have helped get the economy in the state it is,” says Wilson.
But not everyone shares Wilson’s pain. “Larry Summers was in the Clinton administration, so there may be some who might be startled that he might be Treasury Secretary again,” says Charles Branham from the University of Chicago. “But I think the decision may be a very wise thing.”
The presence of so many former Clinton aides and advisors on Obama’s shortlist of appointees has also raised concerns that the man who promised Americans change is not setting himself up to deliver it.
But Branham says that’s understandable in a first-term presidency. “The problem Obama faces is that unlike his campaign team, which was made up of professionals with fresh ideas, Obama may be concerned not so much with people who are qualified, as with people with experience,” says Branham. “He needs people with experience.”