Obama Faces Test On WH Political Office

CHICAGO — It was a standard applause line on the campaign trail: Barack Obama condemned the “perpetual campaign” that has consumed Washington, contending that the slash-and-burn politics practiced by the Bush White House had gotten in the way of governing.

But President-elect Obama has been virtually silent on bipartisan calls in recent months to eliminate the White House office that has been described as the nerve center of the sprawling political operations headed up by Bush adviser Karl Rove. And the fate of that office will be just one of the questions Obama will have to answer in explaining how his mammoth and skilled campaign operation can be transformed into an administration that traffics in a different kind of politics at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

John McCain pledged in September to abolish the White House Office of Political Affairs as president. House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) followed up with a report last month recommending its elimination. And Craig Holman, a lobbyist with the government watchdog group Public Citizen, said Wednesday that it “must be dismantled.”

“I would be startled if he kept it and I would be very critical of an Obama administration that kept a political office,” Holman said. “I could not imagine this office being structured in a way that would be in the public’s interest.”

Transition aides declined to comment Wednesday on Obama’s plans for the office.

But the president-elect has given no indication that he will eliminate the political shop, which has detractors and defenders in both parties. When McCain told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that he would move the political operations into the Republican National Committee, saying “we’ve gotta have a White House that is without politics,” the Obama campaign declined to agree with McCain’s suggestion.

Obama’s decision on the political office is an early test of how sharply the president-elect plans to turn away from the practices of his predecessor. The Republican National Committee has spent the last week counting the ways in which it sees Obama sending mixed messages on his commitment to end the so-called permanent campaign in Washington.

Republicans point to two early hires, Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff and David Axelrod as a senior advisor. Emanuel, while praised by some for outreach to Republicans, was an architect of the Democratic House takeover in 2006 and has never been mistaken for a shrinking violet when it comes to partisan rhetoric.

Axelrod served as a mastermind behind Obama’s four-year rise from Illinois state senator to president-elect, prompting some Republicans to compare him with Rove when it comes to the influence both enjoyed with newly elected presidents.

Obama is still deciding what to do with the campaign’s list of 3 million contributors and 10 million supporters, who gave email addresses, donated money or participated in social networking tools on Obama’s website.

The network could be harnessed as a grassroots lobbying force that powers Obama’s policy ideas in the same way it propelled his candidacy past establishment figures from both parties. Technology experts say Obama could roll the list into a freestanding political organization with an eye on the 2012 election or hand it over to the Democratic National Committee.

At the same time, the transition operation is collecting email addresses through its website, change.gov, giving the president-elect the potential to go directly to his base to mobilize support. The new site is already generating traffic comparable to the campaign site, underscoring Obama’s ability to transfer his popularity around the web, former Blue State Digital Strategist Kevin Thurman wrote Tuesday on TechPresident.com

Either way, Republicans say they will be on the lookout for Obama using the list for poitical gain.

“Obama is chipping away at his pledge to leave partisanship at the White House’s doorstep,” said Alex Conant, a RNC spokesman. “His early hires and reports he will use his campaign email lists as a governing tool are a clear indication of his partisan style. Hopefully, Obama will be a president for all Americans – not just the political supporters on his email list.”

Obama aides declined to comment on what they termed partisan criticism, but noted the president-elect has announced few hires so far and issued numerous proposals throughout the campaign aimed at changing the tone in Washington.

On Tuesday, transition chief John Podesta announced what he called the "strictest and most far-reaching ethics rules of any transition team," which bars federal registered lobbyists from working on the interim team. Podesta also said Obama would make more than “token-level” appointments of Republicans and independents in his Cabinet and administration.

“There are literally thousands of people who work in the administration who will not be from the political world and who will be of all political stripes, so this is making a judgment based on less than a handful of hires,” an Obama aide said.

Former Bush, Clinton and Reagan administration officials agree with Obama’s caution in wielding the ax on the White House political shop, saying the president needs a point person who manages political affairs. The question, former administration aides say, is which model will Obama follow – Bush or pre-Bush?

“He needs the office because he has built a political apparatus that is very significant and he needs the support of the public to help pass legislation,” said Ed Rollins, the head of political affairs under Ronald Reagan, who created the office in 1981. “I always brought the political perspective to the dialogue – ‘this governor would be affected, this senator would be affected.’ It was always important to know the political impact. It was always important to have someone inside the meetings.”

Rollins said he would “argue very strenuously” to keep the office.

“At the end of the day, if you don’t have your constituency behind you, you aren’t looking at polling data and looking at what is going on in the country, it’s like flying without instruments in an airplane,” he said.

Waxman’s committee spent months investigating the Bush political affairs office, and concluded in an October report that the extent of its activity and “its deep and systematic reach into the federal agencies are unprecedented.” The office sent cabinet secretaries to campaign for vulnerable Republican candidates, targeted grant awards to key districts and provide political briefings for agency heads, the report found.

“For these reasons, the committee recommends that Congress develop legislation to eliminate the White House Office of Political Affairs,” the 27-page report stated. “If this is not politically feasible, Congress should adopt reforms to ensure that the office serves the interests of the taxpayer rather than the political party of the president.”

Waxman’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment this week on whether he thought Obama should follow his committee’s recommendations.

Matt Bennett, a co-founder of the public policy think tank Third Way who worked closely with the political office in the Clinton administration, said Obama can appease critics if he returns to the Clinton model.

“The difference between how we handled it in the Clinton White House and the Rove operation is that the Bush people elevated the office to make it part of the decision-making on substantive issues, while Clinton (and, I think, Bush I and Reagan) used it as an outreach and planning operation – conncting with the party committee, planning for presidential travel for fundraising and politicking,” Bennett wrote in an email.

“I don’t know about Waxman,” Bennett added, “but most on the Hill should be mollified if OPA goes back to its former role and gets out of the business of determining how many battalions of troops we should send to Iraq.”
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