The Note, 12/17/08: (Hoop) Dream Team -- Quietly, Obama Builds All-Star Roster


Maybe this no-drama thing is contagious after all.

As President-elect Barack Obama plugs in two of the last big holes on his team Wednesday -- former Gov. Tom Vilsack at Agriculture, and Sen. Ken Salazar at Interior, to be announced at an 11:45 am ET Chicago press conference -- one remarkable theme developing is how . . . content everyone is with his Cabinet.The Clinton crowd can hardly complain, after Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton got the biggest prize. Supporters of other Democratic presidential candidates can look around the Cabinet table and see Clinton alongside three other people who, at one point, though they’d make better presidents than Obama.

Obama turned to an Education secretary Tuesday who somehow has the simultaneous trust and respect of the teachers’ unions, school administrators, and charter-school advocates. Republicans -- up to and including Vice President Dick Cheney, and Sen. John McCain -- are marveling at Obama’s national-security team.

The left gets Eric Shinseki and a Nobel Prize winner to head Energy. An early brushfire among Latinos appears to be quenched with the Salazar and Bill Richardson picks (though Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., says he’s turning Obama down on his offer of the top trade post).

And yes -- this crowd plays a mean game of hoops, too. 

“Experience? Check. Academic credentials? Check. Can hit a fadeaway and drive the lane? Check,” USA Today’s Mark Memmott writes.

(The One knows carpentry -- at least when it comes to building a Cabinet. Save perhaps for some questions for Eric Holder, will any Obama choices face a knock-down, drag-’em-out in confirmation hearing rooms?)

Quibbles remain: No Southerners (though Robert Gibbs’ Alabama drawl behind the press secretary’s podium helps), and no Republicans (though Robert Gates, a registered independent, has got to be considered close.)

Still holes to fill: “After the next round of upcoming appointments is done Obama will just have four [Cabinet-level] appointments left to dole out: CIA Director, National Intelligence Director, Labor Secretary, and Transportation Secretary,” ABC’s Sunlen Miller reports.

Obama himself advises patience: “I'm not giving you a preview. We've got some more appointments to make.”

As for those he’s making Wednesday: “Vilsack will be the fourth former opponent of Obama in the campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination to join his new administration,” the AP’s Mike Glover writes. “He endorsed [Hillary] Clinton and campaigned actively for her in the long primary campaign against Obama. After Obama defeated Clinton, Vilsack endorsed him.” 

“It would . . . mark the first time the agriculture secretary and Senate Agriculture Committee chairman were both Iowans, creating a unique confluence of Iowa clout over agriculture and food policy,” Thomas Beaumont reports in the Des Moines Register. “As governor, Vilsack had backed renewable energy and worked to develop industry related to the state's ethanol and wind-generated electricity production. Iowa is the nation's leading ethanol producer and near the top in wind-generated electricity.”

And -- just a hint of discontent here: “When President-elect  Barack Obama announces his appointment of Sen.  Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) as interior secretary today, he will be placing a legislator better known for brokering deals between warring interests than for outlining an ambitious agenda of conservation,” Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post.

With Salazar, D-Colo., lined up for Interior, incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel allows himself a bit of a diversity victory lap:

“Based on what I can cull from records, we have more Hispanics in senior positions in this White House than under either President Bush or President Clinton,” Emanuel said in an interview with Politico’s Mike Allen (and no, he doesn’t say the word “Blagojevich” in this interview.)

“Diversity wasn’t the driving force here,” Emanuel adds. “I’m proud of the fact that it is a diverse staff. But most importantly, the quality is of a single standard. We wanted to make sure that we got a great staff of seasoned people -- both on the policy front and on the political front -- who know their stuff.”

(More on Blago later, but first, your daily dose of Rahm: “President-elect Barack Obama's incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, was pushing for Obama's successor just days after the Nov. 4 election, sources told the Chicago Sun-Times,” Natasha Korecki and Fran Spielman report. “Emanuel privately urged Gov. Blagojevich's administration to appoint Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett, and the Sun-Times learned Tuesday that he also pressed that it be done by a certain deadline. . . . The disclosure comes days after Obama's camp downplayed Jarrett's interest in the post.)

(And Sun-Times columnist Michael Sneed -- floating a very high number: “Sneed hears rumbles President-elect Barack Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is reportedly on 21 different taped conversations by the feds -- dealing with his boss' vacant Senate seat!”)

The way Obama has structured things -- with strong White House advisers, plus familiar faces heading up the Cabinet posts -- suggests a managerial break with the Bush administration, if nothing else.

“The most telling Obama appointments have been his economics pick, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers; his environmental pick, former EPA head Carole Browner; and his new health-care czar, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle -- all of whom have lengthy Washington résumés and all of whom will be working out of the White House,” Time’s Michael Grunwald writes. “Daschle's dual titles are the most telling; he was actually nominated to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, but Obama gave him a West Wing job as well to indicate that, unlike previous HHS Secretaries, Daschle is actually supposed to run the nation's health policy.”

Writes Grunwald: “Obama's picks suggest that while his Cabinet Secretaries will take marching orders, the orders will at least come from seasoned heavyweights.”

The New York Times’ Peter Baker picks up on another link to the Clinton years: “Answering the phones these days for the co-chairman of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition, John D. Podesta, is none other than Betty Currie.”

It’s early, but Republicans are growing impressed: “Republicans who spoke with Obama said that the president-elect has called them directly at various times during the day, clearly enunciating his name on voice mail as though they might somehow confuse him with someone else,” The Hill’s Alexander Bolton reports. “Some of these Republicans, who are poised to represent their party on issues ranging from the economy to healthcare to homeland security, say it is the most aggressive outreach from an incoming president that they can remember.”

The big appointment that’s still out there: “President-elect Barack Obama's search for senior intelligence officials is still unfinished weeks after other national-security picks were named, showing the political sensitivities in choosing the leaders who will decide whether to continue Bush-era antiterror policies,” The Wall Street Journal’s Siobhan Gorman reports. “Mr. Obama is expected to announce at least one intelligence appointment soon, perhaps this week, according to two former intelligence officials familiar with the process.”

Another slot Obama is having trouble filling: “Saying that he has come to the realization that trade is not a priority for the incoming Obama administration, Rep. Xavier Becerra has decided not to accept Barack Obama's offer to be United States Trade Representative, according to an interview the California Democrat gave to the editorial board of La Opinion, a Spanish-language newspaper in Los Angeles,” ABC’s Teddy Davis reports.

One could argue that, with the exception of the scandal surrounding Gov. Rod Blagojevich, D-Ill. -- and Obama’s initially poor responses to it -- this has been pretty close to a perfect transition. (Just imagine what a leaking, creaking mess a McCain transition would have been. . . . )

But things are stalled on Blago in Illinois -- a cumbersome legislative process, an obstinate, defiant governor, and no more information coming from Team Obama until the US attorney’s office gives the go-ahead.

Team Obama has the fresh Emanuel details to contend with -- but we’re pretty sure we know what he’s going to say about them if asked.

ABC’s Sunlen Miller’s press conference write-up: “The president-elect cut the Chicago [Tribune] reporter off -- claiming that he didn’t want to ‘waste’ their time -- before they could finish a question about Blagojevich. ‘Do you have another question?’ Obama asked, indicating the reporter should move on to another subject.”

Heat on Rahm: “However justifiable the silence and caution, Emanuel (and, by extension, Obama) could pay a price for both as the Chicago mess simmers on,” Newsweek’s Howard Fineman writes. “Emanuel already has blown up at members of the Chicago press corps -- a newspaper reporter and a cameraman. Obama's transition team, eager to show its openness and focus on naming cabinet nominees, has been forced to spend day after day dealing with the Blago story. There's too much focus on Emanuel, whose naturally abrasive personality clashes with his boss's cool demeanor.”

In Springfield: “In the first hints of the drubbing to come, Democratic and Republican committee members struggled to tamp down their revulsion over the national embarrassment created by Blagojevich's arrest a week ago on charges he sought to sell everything from favorable government decisions to the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama,” Ray Long and Monique Garcia report in the Chicago Tribune.

Another snag: “Patrick J. Fitzgerald, the United States attorney who a week ago charged Mr. Blagojevich with conspiracy to commit wire and mail fraud and bribery, has expressed reservations [to lawmakers] about the prospect that lawmakers may hear testimony from witnesses in the criminal case before a jury does,” Monica Davey and Malcolm Gay write in The New York Times.

Blagojevich’s attorney, Ed Genson, meets with the impeachment panel Wednesday.

“Meanwhile, state Democratic leaders have put off discussions about a special election, much to the dismay of Republicans, who are adamantly against Blagojevich or Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn appointing the state's next U.S. senator,” ABC’s Matt Jaffe reports.

The Chicago Tribune editorializes: “So much for trusting voters. Illinois Democrats want nothing to do with that now.”

“State Democrats slammed the door Tuesday on a special election to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by President-elect Barack Obama, reversing earlier calls for a vote and ending a rare sense of statewide bipartisanship that followed Gov. Rod Blagojevich's arrest last week,” Doug Belkin writes in The Wall Street Journal.

That would be a wide-open door for the Illinois GOP to jump through.

New ad out Wednesday morning: Blago Democrats. “Rod Blagojevich embarrassed Illinois and tried to sell our Senate Seat. And now Blagojevich's campaign chairmen are refusing to hold a special election and playing political games. Blagojevich Democrats said they'd support a special election and went back on their word. The people of Illinois -- embarrassed again.”

But does someone smell an overreach? Newt Gingrich does, and he’s letting RNC Chairman Mike Duncan know: “[The RNC Web] ad is a terrible signal to be sending about both the goals of the Republican Party in the midst of the nation’s troubled economic times and about whether we have actually learned anything from the defeats of 2006 and 2008,” Gingrich, R-Ga., writes. “The RNC should pull the ad down immediately.”

Quite the twist involving Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.: ABC’s Chicago station, WLS, reports that Jackson, D-Ill., “has worked with federal prosecutors, informing on an alleged Blagojevich administration scheme two and half years earlier.”

Said Jackson spokesman Kenneth Edmonds: “As a responsible citizen and elected official, Congressman Jackson has in the past provided information to federal authorities regarding his personal knowledge of perceived corruption and governmental misconduct. This was completely unrelated to the current federal investigation regarding the U.S. Senate appointment. And it is absolutely inaccurate to describe the Congressman as an informant.”

Then there’s Caroline Kennedy -- enjoying all of the momentum of the moment. “I think Caroline Kennedy would be perfect,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told Jon Ralston on his program “Face to Face.” Said Ralson: “So, are you going to call the governor of New York and say, ‘She's fine in my book?’ ” “I already have,” replied Reid.

A done deal? The New York Daily News: “Hillary Clinton has called off the dogs, telling her supporters to stop trashing Caroline Kennedy, sources told the Daily News. It's the latest sign the way is clearing for Kennedy to move into New York's celebrity Senate seat once Clinton ascends to secretary of state.”

The New York Times editorial board isn’t sold yet: “There are interesting questions for Mr. Paterson to resolve about this job applicant and her qualifications. As someone who has guarded her privacy, is she ready for the heat and the criticisms that are about to bear down on her? How would Ms. Kennedy fare in dealing more publicly with the crowds and the media scrum? Would she really be able to open up? Her appearances are always gracious, but her interviews in recent years have been long on charm and short on information.”

She plans to work for it: “Wasting no time to reach out to Upstate New York in her bid for a U.S. Senate seat, Caroline Kennedy will visit Syracuse today to seek the support of local Democratic leaders,” Mark Weiner reports in the Syracuse Post-Standard. “Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, plans to meet privately with a group of local Democratic leaders and power brokers, several sources said Tuesday night.”

Some risk to a reputation? “The decision by Ms. Kennedy to end a highly private existence and enter politics -- New York politics, no less -- presents what even her supporters acknowledge is a gamble on a carefully cultivated reputation for quiet competence and dignity established over the 45 years since her father was assassinated,” Adam Nagourney and Nicholas Confessore report in The New York Times. “She must overcome skepticism about her experience and credentials, and deflate what some Democrats view as a sense of entitlement by a member of a storied American political family trying to begin her political career near the top of the ladder.”

Nepotism, anyone? “It almost goes without saying that no one would pay Kennedy any attention were she not the beneficiary of a famous name -- and the daughter of a martyred president,” Kathleen Parker writes in her Washington Post column.

“We don't do birthright in this country -- except when we do.” Politico’s Charles Mahtesian, on “Nepotism Nation”: “The U.S. Senate could end up looking like an American version of the House of Lords -- and Republicans have begun to take notice.”

In Minnesota -- someone get an FEC lawyer on this one: “Donors to Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman's re-election campaign may be surprised to learn that the St. Paul Republican is planning to use their contributions to pay blue-chip criminal defense lawyers to defend him against a reported FBI probe into his dealings with a wealthy businessman,” Politico’s Glenn Thrush reports.

The legal battles continue: “At this rate, Minnesota's U.S. Senate recount will never end,” per the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “More ballot challenges were added to the recount Tuesday than were resolved by the state Canvassing Board.”

The Kicker:

“You have to feed your dog, and walk your dog. And then if they do their business if they got some poop, you gotta make sure that you're not just leaving it there. So I want to make sure my kids are taking care of their dog properly.” -- President-elect Barack Obama, laying down the law in his own household. Bookmark the link below to get The Note’s daily morning analysis:

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