Not even a week has passed since he was sworn in, but already Obama is moving to create perhaps the most powerful staff in modern history – a sort of West Wing on steroids that places no less than a half-dozen of his top initiatives into the hands of advisers outside the Cabinet.
For all the talk of his “Team of Rivals” pick in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama last week handed the two hottest hotspots in American foreign policy to presidential envoys – one to former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, and the other to a man who knows his way around Foggy Bottom better than Clinton does, Richard Holbrooke.
"Czar" Carol Browner will head up Obama's fight on global warming, where once his energy and environmental chiefs might have stepped in. Tom Daschle scored a ground floor office in the West Wing not by running Health and Human Services – but because of his role as Obama's health-reform czar.
Pulling power close is something all recent presidents have done – and on the campaign trail, Obama spoke out against George W. Bush’s attempt to expand his executive authority.
But when it comes to building his own team, Obama is taking the notion of a powerful White House staff to new heights, leaving little doubt who will set policy and guide the politics of the his newborn administration.
The structure could pose an early test for Obama — whether he can referee turf battles and policy skirmishes between presidential advisers and his Cabinet, which contains some formidable figures as well. Obama comes to the job lacking the executive experience of his two predecessors, governors-turned-presidents.
But Obama appears willing to take that chance. Aides say he believes the Cabinet structure is outdated because it doesn’t recognize that problems like global warming sprawl across several agencies, often requiring a sort of uber-Cabinet member – a czar – to confront them.
That helps explain the selection of Browner as an "energy-environment" czar, said one Obama aide.
"Some of the Cabinet agencies were created before the most pressing issues of today,” this aide said. "To have people cut through a bureaucracy that doesn’t match the times we’re in is just more effective.”
What’s notable about Obama’s approach – and expands on the approaches taken by Bush and Bill Clinton – is the number of different areas where Obama is seeking to tap a central figure, outside the Cabinet structure, who will carry out his wishes.
Handling a prized portfolio of issues including national security, homeland security, the economy and energy are a handful of super-staffers who could just as easily have filled top Cabinet posts: National Security Adviser Jim Jones, Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan, Director of National Economic Council Larry Summers and likely Urban Policy director Adolfo Carrion.
Summers and Browner bring significant stature as Cabinet veterans in the Clinton administration, having served, respectively, as Treasury Secretary and EPA director. Carrion was considered for HUD secretary. Jones, a retired Marine four-star general and former head of NATO, has the credentials to be Defense Secretary.
The structure also allowed Obama to bypass the Senate confirmation process on two nominees who would have proven controversial, by merely picking them for White House jobs instead.
Summers was under fire from women’s groups for remarks made as Harvard president – but even as economic adviser, he’s overshadowing Treasury Secretary pick Tim Geithner as Obama’s economic spokesman.
Brennan was thought to be Obama’s No. 1 choice to head the CIA, but anti-torture advocates effectively scuttled his expected nomination by crying foul over Brennan’s work in formulating Bush administration interrogation policy.