President-elect Barack Obama has chosen former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to lead his effort to shape an overhaul of the nation's health care system and push it through Congress.
Announcing his choice Thursday, Obama stressed the link between restoring the nation's dismal economy and making health coverage more affordable and accessible to Americans.
"If we want to overcome our economic challenges, we must also finally address our health care challenge. I can think of no one better suited to lead this effort," Obama said of Daschle.
Daschle's selection as secretary of Health and Human Services has been known for some time, but Obama made it official in a news conference. He said Daschle also will oversee a new White House Office of Health Reform.
"As such he will be responsible not just for implementing our health care plan. He will also be the lead architect of that plan," Obama said.
Obama said that Jeanne Lambrew will serve as deputy director of that White House office.
Daschle was a close adviser to Obama throughout the campaign. He recently wrote a book on his proposals to improve health care, which Lambrew helped him write.
If confirmed, Daschle, 61, would oversee a department that's responsible for nearly $1 out of every $4 in federal government spending. He described fixing health care as one of the nation's greatest domestic challenges.
"We have the most expensive health care system in the world, but are not the healthiest nation in the world," Daschle said.
HHS oversees an array of programs responsible for food and drug safety, health coverage for the elderly and the poor, medical research, early childhood education and assistance for those in extreme poverty. Many view a new White House office on health issues as part of an effort demonstrating that health reform will be a top priority next year.
After losing re-election to the Senate in 2004, Daschle, D-S.D., became a public policy adviser at the law and lobbying firm Alston & Bird, although he isn't a registered lobbyist. He advised clients on issues including health care, financial services and taxes and trade, according to the firm's Web site. The firm itself has a client list heavy with health care interests. They include drugmakers Abbott Laboratories, Mylan Labs and the Generic Pharmaceutical Association, a trade group; CVS Caremark; health insurers Anthem and Humana; Bayer Healthcare; and trade groups representing nurse anesthetists, nursing homes, clinical labs, gastroenterologists, community hospitals and home care and hospice services.
Obama said Daschle not only has a keen interest in health issues but has the respect of lawmakers in Congress.
"A gifted manager, Tom is the original no-drama guy — known for speaking softly, but leading boldly," Obama said.
Obama described Lambrew as a nationally recognized expert on Medicare and Medicaid who helped lead efforts during the Clinton administration to create the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage to about 6 million children whose families make too much to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to afford private coverage.
Obama's selections on several important environmental positions are also starting to become clearer. Obama intends to round out his environmental and natural resources team with a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and three former Environmental Protection Agency officials from the Clinton administration.
The president-elect has selected Steven Chu for energy secretary, Lisa Jackson for EPA administrator, Carol Browner as his energy "czar" and Nancy Sutley to lead the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Democratic officials with knowledge of the decisions said Wednesday.
Obama plans to name the four to the posts in the coming weeks, barring unforeseen developments.
Lambrew helped Daschle write a book about health care reform. She also worked on this issue at the White House during the Clinton administration and currently serves as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Leaders of health advocacy groups have described Lambrew as one of Daschle's most trusted advisers on health issues. She will oversee planning efforts.
After losing re-election to the Senate in 2004, Daschle, D-S.D., became a public policy adviser and member of the legislative and public policy group at the law and lobbying firm Alston & Bird. Daschle isn't a registered lobbyist. He advised clients on issues including health care, financial services and taxes and trade, according to the firm's Web site.
Still unclear is whom Obama will tap for interior secretary.
Officials close to the transition said support for John Berry, the director of the National Zoo and a former assistant secretary at the Interior Department, was growing. But these officials also said Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva and California Rep. Mike Thompson were still in the running.
The Democratic officials who disclosed the selections spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to reveal names that have not been made public.
Among these posts, Browner's stands out because it's a new White House position.
She is expected to coordinate the various agencies that play a role in energy and environmental policy, especially on issues such as climate change that don't fit nicely in the silos of the federal government. Those agencies could include the EPA and the Transportation, Energy and Interior departments.
Obama has chosen much of his Cabinet and top White House staff. He has only a few key posts left to fill: national intelligence director, the secretaries of housing, labor, education, transportation and agriculture and the U.S. trade representative.
As for his environment and natural resources team:
- Chu was one of three scientists who shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1997. He's a professor of physics and molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and has been the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 2004.
- Jackson, who would be the first black person to lead the EPA, is a former New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection commissioner who worked at the federal agency for 16 years. She co-chairs Obama's EPA transition team, and currently serves as chief of staff to New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine.
- Browner, who served as EPA chief for eight years in the Clinton administration, will become Obama's go-to person in the White House overseeing energy issues, an area expected to include the environment and climate matters. She now is chairwoman of the National Audubon Society.
- Sutley, the deputy mayor for energy and environment in Los Angeles and the mayor's representative on the Board of Directors for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, is the first prominent gay person to earn a senior role in Obama's new administration. She was an EPA official during the Clinton administration.