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Obama assembles powerful West Wing

Barack Obama is assembling a new and influential cadre of counselors just steps from the Oval Office whose power to direct domestic policy will rival, if not exceed, the authority of his Cabinet.
Image: President-elect Barack Obama listens as Carol Browner his newly designated White House energy czar
President-elect Barack Obama listens as newly designated White House energy czar Carol Browner speaks at a news conference in Chicago on   Dec. 15, 2008.AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

President-elect Barack Obama is assembling a new and influential cadre of counselors just steps from the Oval Office whose power to direct domestic policy will rival, if not exceed, the authority of his Cabinet.

Presidents have long strived to centralize influence in the White House, often to the frustration of their Cabinet secretaries. But not since Richard M. Nixon tried to abolish the majority of his Cabinet has a president gone so far in attempting to build a West Wing-based clutch of advisers with a mandate to cut through — or leapfrog — the traditional bureaucracy.

Obama's emerging "super-Cabinet" is intended to ensure that his domestic priorities — health reform, the environment and urban affairs — don't get mired in agency red tape or brushed aside by the ongoing economic meltdown and international crises. Half a dozen new White House positions have been filled by well-known leaders with experience navigating Washington turf wars.

But some see the potential for chaos within the administration.

"We're going to have so many czars," said Thomas J. Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "It's going to be a lot of fun, seeing the czars and the regulators and the czars and the Cabinet secretaries debate."

Carol M. Browner, who ran the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton administration, is taking on a broad new portfolio with responsibility for Obama's ambitious agenda on the environment, energy and climate change.

Bronx politician Adolfo Carrion Jr. is expected to serve in another new White House post, implementing Obama's education and housing agenda for cities.

Former senator Thomas A. Daschle will become the first Cabinet secretary in decades to have an office in the West Wing and a separate, newly created White House title: director of the Office of Health Reform.

Daschle's confirmation hearing to become secretary of health and human services begins today.

Foreign-policy model
In interviews, several top Obama advisers said they are extending to domestic affairs a model of governance that has long been used in foreign policy, in which the national security adviser manages diplomatic and military matters from a perch in the White House that offers him or her ready access to the president.

"Given the enormity of the challenges we face, it is critical to have someone in the White House every day, reporting to the president, coordinating policy and giving these issues the important focus they deserve," said Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. "It allows for efficient, streamlined decision-making."

But Bruce Herschensohn, a professor of foreign policy at Pepperdine University who was deputy special assistant to Nixon, said Obama's plans for the White House could do the opposite.

"It's adding a layer of bureaucracy rather than really eliminating one," said Herschensohn, recalling Nixon's failed attempt to eliminate all but four Cabinet agencies. "Everyone will be fighting with everybody. You'll have conflict with every Cabinet officer who will now have a superior in the West Wing or" the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

If executed poorly, empowering a small team inside the White House can lead to insular decision making and the alienation of those Cabinet secretaries outside the loop, said historian I.M. Destler, a professor at the University of Maryland's public policy school.

"It tends to lead to disruption, and sometimes chaos, in terms of how the larger government works," Destler said. "It cuts out other people. They think the worst about what's going on in the White House. Loyalty to the president is diminished."

There is also a danger that a weak adviser, or one who is perceived as having lost the backing of the president, will not be able to corral the necessary government resources, becoming ineffective or irrelevant.

"Are all these people really going to have the relationship with the president that they need?" Destler asked. "He seems to be placing a lot of faith in his own ability to manage a team. How much is he going to do it directly?"

G. Calvin Mackenzie, a professor of politics at Colby College, said Obama also risks bogging his White House down with minutiae better left to the Cabinet agencies.

"The dark side of that is that inevitably the White House gets into micromanaging and it minimizes the importance of the Cabinet secretaries," Mackenzie said. "The thing that might make it less than inevitable is that they are starting with this structure in place from the beginning."

Top Obama advisers spent months studying the internal workings of previous administrations and came away convinced that high-priority issues require a White House coordinator akin to the national security adviser. White House veterans say the new posts are the clearest signal yet that the incoming president has no patience for the resistance to change that permeates the capital.

"He's taking his top priorities and doubling down by making sure they are operating in full coordination in the White House as well as in the agencies," said Patrick J. Griffin, who served as President Bill Clinton's legislative affairs director. "It really is a way of him maximizing the opportunity to control all aspects of these efforts."

But the national security model is far from perfect, having produced memorable conflicts between White House advisers and secretaries of defense and state.

As national security adviser during President Bush's first term, Condoleezza Rice famously clashed with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Much depends on personalities, said Roy Neel, who was deputy chief of staff for Clinton. Bush's foreign policy arrangement was a "nightmare situation," he said. Far more successful, Neel said, was Clinton's creation of the National Economic Council with Robert E. Rubin stationed in the White House and serving as its chief.

"That organizational change was built on the notion that that White House was all about turning the economy around," Neel said. "Rubin and [Treasury Secretary] Lloyd Bentsen worked pretty well together."

But Obama's approach is designed to go much further.

Browner, for example, in promoting Obama's "green" agenda, will attempt to exert authority across half a dozen federal departments and agencies, including Energy, Interior, Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency.

In announcing her appointment, Obama promised a new level of "coordination across the government, and my personal engagement as president" on energy and climate policy. He said Browner will have the power to "demand integration among different agencies; cooperation between federal, state and local governments; and partnership with the private sector."

Daniel J. Weiss, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said, "The energy and global warming problems are so broad, it's a necessity to have a quarterback."

Similarly, Daschle, with his White House title, will have much broader authority than the typical health secretary. In coordinating a new approach to health care, he will touch on programs serving veterans, active military members and federal employees — areas not within the jurisdiction of the Department of Health and Human Services.

In addition to Daschle, Browner and Carrion, Obama is hiring advisers to coordinate policy in the broad areas of technology, homeland security and government reform.

"It's unprecedented in the formality of it," Mackenzie said.

Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.

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