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Obama Transition Team Focused on Review, Quality Recruitment

November 12, 2008 at 6:10 PM EDT
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Valerie Jarrett, a co-chair of President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, details how plans are unfolding to name a new Cabinet and shape the policy priorities of a new administration.
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RAY SUAREZ: Our Newsmaker interview with Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, and to Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With me now to discuss President-elect Obama’s transition and his priorities once in office is Valerie Jarrett. She served as a senior adviser to Obama during the campaign. She’s now co-chair of the Obama-Biden transition project.

Valerie Jarrett, welcome to the NewsHour.

VALERIE JARRETT, Obama-Biden Transition Adviser: Well, thank you, Judy. Good evening to you. How are you tonight?

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m well. And a personal question first. You’ve known Barack Obama for, what, 17 years. Is he any different since the election?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, no. You know, I think what’s amazing about President-elect Obama is that he’s very grounded, he knows who he is, he has his priorities straight.

And so he’s heartened by this journey. It’s been an amazing journey over the course of the last two years, as if he’s traveled from one part of our country to the next and heard so many incredible stories about the strength and resilience of the American people.

But he’s still the same person that I really met 17 years ago. Certainly he’s matured and he’s grown in the course of those 17 years, but the basic core decency, intellect, judgment, temperament, they’re really all just the same.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s talk about the transition. It’s already been a week. You’ve got 10 weeks to go. Are you where you want to be, where you need to be at this point?

VALERIE JARRETT: Absolutely. Sen. — President-elect Obama hit the ground running Wednesday morning right after our celebration here in Chicago Tuesday evening. He announced his co-chairs, as you know, last week. He also announced his chief of staff.

He released today the names of the lead people who are working on the agency reviews of the Defense Department, State Department, Treasury Department. He’s had two meetings already with his economic advisers, and he’s moving forward, studying all of the agencies throughout the federal government, and beginning his search for the best and the brightest to lead the different agencies and to work in the White House.

Economy tops agenda

Valerie Jarrett
Co-chair, Obama-Biden Transition Project
President-elect Obama has had numerous phone conversations with world leaders over the course of the last week. Many have called him to congratulate him. They've had productive conversations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, of course, the main issue on everybody's mind right now is the economy. It was underscored again today, the drop in the Dow Industrials over 400 points. I know that he said there's only one president at a time. But how hard is it for him to sit this out until January 20th?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, it's appropriate. I think it's what's in the best interest of America. I think it's an important signal to send around the world that we really do only have one president. You can't give mixed signals.

He's obviously -- he had a meeting this week, as you know, with President Bush. It was a very productive meeting. It was cordial. He was heartened by the fact that President Bush, notwithstanding that we had a very hotly contested election, that President Bush reached out and invited both Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, to the White House on Monday.

They had the tour of the White House. And, of course, it was a good meeting between the president-elect and President Bush.

So I think we're moving in the right direction. He's going to be watching very closely everything that goes on. But it really is appropriate for him to wait and assume office January 20th.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But this weekend, for example, you have 20 world leaders coming to the United States, coming to Washington to talk about the world economic crisis. Can they really get anything done without his being there?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, of course they can, and I think that obviously it will receive a great deal of publicity. President-elect Obama has asked Madeleine Albright and Jim Leach to sit in, and be there to take notes, and report back to him on the progress that's made at the meeting.

President-elect Obama has had numerous phone conversations with world leaders over the course of the last week. Many have called him to congratulate him. They've had productive conversations.

But, again, it's important that there's really just one president at a time, and that president will be President Obama on January 20th.

Prioritizing is a challenge

Valerie Jarrett
Co-chair, Obama-Biden Transition Project
I think (Sen. Obama) made it clear there's going to be a lot of sacrifice that's going to have to be had all the way around, but together our country, if we're all working together in a bipartisan way, we're confident we can move the country forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There's so much speculation, Valerie Jarrett, about what he's going to do first. We know the problems are growing greater by the day. It's the financial sector; it's the housing sector; now the auto industry. Is there a sense inside the transition which one of these is most urgent?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, I think they're all urgent, and I think we're optimistic that Congress will take action next week, not wait for his presidency. If, in fact, they don't take action, it will be first on his agenda in January.

We are concerned, as you said, about the auto industry. There are millions of jobs around our country that are dependent upon the auto industry, and we need to make sure at the same as we provide a safety net that we're encouraging the auto industry to retool and become more fuel-efficient.

So there are lots of items on the agenda. Obviously, the economy is front and center. We have to stabilize the economy. We have to protect homeowners. We have to protect those whose jobs are at risk, those who've already lost their jobs, who we want to make sure that they have unemployment benefits.

So there's lots of work to be done. And of course, ongoing is national security. But that's the job of the president. You have to be able to multitask and tackle a bunch of tough issues all at the same time, and that's what President Obama will do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there were also these important promises he made during the campaign, cutting taxes for 95 percent of the middle class. He talked about universal health care, education reform, energy, revamped energy policy. Now we're looking at, what, a $1 trillion federal budget deficit next year.

Are we looking now at major initiatives or working at these problems around the edges?

VALERIE JARRETT: No, we're looking at major initiatives. If you think about the tax cut, that's part of how we have to jump-start the middle class. If you look at the act that Congress could hopefully take next week, an infrastructure bill, get people back to work, invest in our roads, in our bridges, our schools, provide support to state and local government that's desperately needed.

They're all tied together, Judy, to help stabilize and jump-start our economy and get people working again. So they're all important.

The energy crisis is key, not just in the United States, but around the world. Clearly there's a need for health care. And I think that throughout the campaign, what President-elect Obama heard time and time again is the importance of affordable health care for everybody.

So all of the issues that you outlined are the ones that he embraced in the course of the campaign and that the American people embraced by giving him their support by such a wide margin.

So we have to tackle all of these issues. And it's going to be tough, but the American people are pretty resilient. I think he made it clear there's going to be a lot of sacrifice that's going to have to be had all the way around, but together our country, if we're all working together in a bipartisan way, we're confident we can move the country forward.

New ethics rules, familiar faces

Valerie Jarrett
Co-chair, Obama-Biden Transition Project
If you have lobbied, you will not be able to lobby on any issue at all during the transition, regardless of whether it's something that you're working on specifically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, you accepted several of the faces that we're already seeing running the transition, faces we're hearing about in the administration, Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff, John Podesta working with you at transition. Some of these team leaders announced today come from the Clinton administration.

Senator Obama talked during the campaign about turning the page. Can you have change with so many familiar faces?

VALERIE JARRETT: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think, as you see his administration take form, you're going to see people from the Clinton administration, you're going to see people from all around our country, you're going to see Republicans, you're going to see a variety of different perspectives.

But I think what you're going to see most importantly is his leadership, which is about bringing our country together and taking talent wherever you find it. And it's his leadership that will change the direction of our country, together with the American people working toward solving the very many problems we just talked about a few minutes ago.

And that can be done with the breadth of talent that we have. And it doesn't matter whose administration you were from; it's really the leadership and the tone that starts at the top.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing Senator Obama said during the campaign is he said lobbyists won't be working in the White House. And now it was announced yesterday in the transition that lobbyists can work in the transition as long as they don't lobby in the exact area they were involved in before. Why the softer rule here?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, Judy, actually it is the most sweeping ethics regulations by any administration that's ever had a transition. And what we've been very clear about is we don't want a revolving door. We don't want folks who have been lobbying on an issue to come and work on the transition and then go back and lobby on that issue.

And so what we're doing -- what's never been done before, which is a one-year look-back. Any matter that you've worked on within the last year, you won't be able to work on during the transition.

If you have lobbied, you will not be able to lobby on any issue at all during the transition, regardless of whether it's something that you're working on specifically. And then going forward for a year, you won't be able to work on -- you won't be able to lobby on any issue that you've worked on.

When you put those all together, it is sweeping, it is dramatic, and it's consistent with his philosophy of not allowing lobbyists to profit from the work that they do in government.

Transition transparency online

Valerie Jarrett
Co-chair, Obama-Biden Transition Project
Now that we have a lot more information that's coming from working cooperatively with the team that's in the Bush administration right now, we're taking a look at all of the commitments that were made in the course of the campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This may be some people would say a small thing, but it's been noted in the press that on the Web page, the Obama-Biden transition page, the detailed issues pages have been taken off and replaced with sort of a general policy statement. Why was that done?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, we're in the process now of doing agency review. Now that we have a lot more information that's coming from working cooperatively with the team that's in the Bush administration right now, we're taking a look at all of the commitments that were made in the course of the campaign.

We're looking at the information that we're gathering from the agencies so it will add some color and some depth to our analysis. And then, as we make decisions, we'll be putting that back up on the Web page.

You mentioned the Web page, Judy, and I'm glad you did, because another principle of the Obama administration is one of transparency. It's very important to us that the American people have a clear idea just in time of what our programs are, what our plans are, what our priorities are.

And the Web page will provide a wonderful keyhole into the administration on a regular basis. So thank you for highlighting our Web page.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quick last question. Your name has been mentioned both for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois that Senator Obama is, of course, vacating or a cabinet position. Either one of interest?

VALERIE JARRETT: Well, you know what? I'm actually not interested in the Senate position. What I've said to President-elect Obama, you know -- as you know, he's a very dear friend. He knows me well. And just as all Americans, I'm happy to serve my country at the pleasure of the president in any way he deems fit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we hear you loud and clear.

VALERIE JARRETT: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Valerie Jarrett, thank you so much for joining us.