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Obama Cabinet Picks May Face Intense Vetting Process

November 19, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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President-elect Barack Obama's transition team is asking potential appointees for detailed background information, setting the stage for one of the toughest review processes to date. Analysts explain the reasoning behind the intense vetting strategy.

GWEN IFILL: Now, putting together a new administration from scratch. High-profile names are beginning to trickle out each day as President-elect Obama begins to assemble his cabinet and West Wing.

Each name — Clinton, Daschle, Holder, Axelrod, Emanuel — must meet tough new vetting standards put in place by the Obama transition. So is this the toughest screening process in presidential history?

For more on that, we turn to two people who have followed this and previous transitions closely: Peter Baker, White House correspondent for the New York Times; and Paul Light, professor of public service at New York University and author of the book “Government Ill Executed: The Decline of the Federal Service and How to Reverse It.”

Paul Light, how is this shaping up? It seems like a very tough vetting process which has been put in place.

PAUL LIGHT, New York University: Oh, it’s very tough. It’s almost like a random shooting.

The questions are deep. The amount of information you have to supply is extraordinary. There are new areas for exploration. Every scandal possible has been anticipated.

You know, they’re inspecting almost everything, including your Internet activity, whether you own a gun, whether it’s been registered. That last rule on guns may have come from Dick Cheney. Who knows? Kind of worries that you might have shot somebody along the way.

It is an intense process, and it’s very discouraging, I think, to some potential appointees.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Peter Baker, let’s just break it down a little bit by little bit. As you look at this extensive questionnaire the Obama people have put together, is this something which is unprecedented? Is it unusually intrusive? For instance, they’re asking about spouse’s investments and children’s activities, as well.

PETER BAKER, The New York Times: Right. It’s probably the most intrusive questionnaire that any political appointees have ever been subjected to. It’s the kind of thing where everything you’ve ever written, every speech you’ve ever given, you know, anything you’ve ever done, basically, in your life, right down to the kid you got into a fight with on the kindergarten playground has to be report to the transition team.

And, you know, this is only actually the beginning. If you were to make it through this process and get an appointment from the Obama administration, only then do you go to the FBI for the actual full-field background investigation that they conduct before a Senate confirmation hearing.

Obama picks experienced Democrats

GWEN IFILL: So, Peter, let's talk about the names we've seen so far and whether they tell us anything about the agenda that Barack Obama is attempting to set here.

PETER BAKER: Well, it's very interesting the names we've seen so far. There's obviously one key thread that links them all.

I mean, remember, during the campaign, Mr. Obama talked a lot about electing John McCain would be the equivalent of a third term for George Bush. This is looking more and more like a third term for Bill Clinton.

A lot of the names you're seeing are all veterans of the Clinton administration, whether Greg Craig, Eric Holder, obviously, Hillary Rodham Clinton, if she were to become secretary of state, and it's a sign of how Mr. Obama has turned from the revolutionary, in effect, rhetoric of the campaign trail, "We're about change," to the daunting realities of life in Washington at a time of war and economic crisis when he turns to people with the most experience.

Those happen to be, when you're a Democrat, the Clinton administration veterans.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Light, let me ask you a little bit more about that, because not only are these people, obviously, the most available, experienced Democrats, but some of them actually supported Barack Obama fairly early on over Hillary Clinton.

Does that make it a Clinton administration redux or is it something different?

PAUL LIGHT: Well, it's kind of like "Ghostbusters." I mean, where are you going to go?

About 65 percent of the Obama nominees will live inside the beltway. And the best job to have to be a presidential appointee is to have been a presidential appointee, to have gone through this just brutal vetting process earlier in one's career.

You know, there is a very high premium paid on experience. People don't move to Washington to take these jobs in most cases because Washington is a very expensive place to live, very disruptive to one's family.

So, in a sense, you just have no choices. A lot of folks from K Street and so forth will be in the administration.

Flawed appointee is inevitable

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you about this, Paul Light. Casting your mind back to the last couple of transitions, does extreme vetting really guarantee that you get a better nominee in the end? Or does it just save short-term embarrassment? Or is it neither?

PAUL LIGHT: Well, we keep adding scandals to the list. So what happens is that we clear all the old scandals, and now we've got the Internet scandals. Next time around it may be avatars that we inspect. You never know.

But, no, we don't get sort of a scandal-proof government out of this. What we do is get an exhausted group of presidential appointees, and I can guarantee you that there will be a bad appointment. There's just absolute inevitability about it.

Somebody will not tell the truth, will not yield on certain questions, will hide something. We'll all find out about it, and we'll all ask, what happened?

Well, what happened sometimes is that some people just don't tell the truth, and you can bright-light them, you can put them on a lie detector, but they're still not going to tell the truth. And that's going to happen to Obama. It's happened to every president for the last 50 years.

Transition team secretive

GWEN IFILL: Peter Baker, there seem to be two kind of things we read into the way the Obama campaign behaved toward its personnel on the way the Obama presidency-in-waiting is behaving. One is that they are very secretive and they don't tell a lot. But the minute it gets into the Washington water-cooler sphere, we get a leak a day.

To what degree is that frustrating for the Obama people?

PETER BAKER: Oh, I think it's very frustrating. Look, the no-drama Obama team of Chicago was very capable of keeping things tight because there was only a few people in the room.

The Eric Holder potential nomination for attorney general is a great case in point. The Obama people in this case went to Capitol Hill to say, "OK, how much trouble would there be if we nominated him?" After all, he was involved in the presidential pardons at the end of President Clinton's term that proved so controversial.

And the second they go to the Hill to sort of test that, that's when the news leaks out.

So, you know, it's one thing during a campaign, but when you're talking about governing, ultimately, the circles of people who are informed about information like this ultimately expand, and ultimately that ends up in the newspapers and the blogs and on television.

Lobbying influence important

GWEN IFILL: Peter, as Paul Light pointed out, sometimes there's a danger of fighting the last war and vetting based on the last scandal. Is it possible that this administration, or this administration-in-waiting, is picking the best of past transitions and avoiding the worst of past transitions? Is that the way they're thinking this through?

PAUL LIGHT: They certainly studied past transitions very, very carefully. And, of course, just the selection of John Podesta as the transition chief shows you they want somebody who's been through it before and understands the pitfalls, you know, because John Podesta, of course, was there for Bill Clinton from the beginning.

But you're right. I mean, the danger of fighting the last war is that you miss the next one. And, you know, the big one for this transition, I think, is going to be the question of lobbying.

You know, Mr. Obama made such a big point of saying we're not going to have lobbyists in my government, in effect, but the definitions of what count are somewhat murky.

And, you know, there's going to be a lot of "gotcha" kind of discussion about whether this person or that person really qualifies as a lobbyist and whether he's really keeping his promise to create a government, you know, without that sort of influence.

GWEN IFILL: So, Paul Light, assume for a moment that this is a very smooth transition and everything goes off without a hitch. Does that then set the stage for a very smooth first 100 days?

PAUL LIGHT: Well, it certainly helps. One of the reasons this group of planners is doing well is because they happen to have served in one of the worst transitions in modern history.

So the Clinton people who are involved now with Obama certainly had the experiences of a wasted transition and really a wasted first 100 days.

They need to be ready to deal with the inevitable problems that they're going to face -- the bad appointee, for example -- but that will give them steam rolling into the first 100 days, which will give them momentum into the second 100 days.

This administration has a very, very short period of time to make an impact on the legislative agenda, and they cannot afford a stumble right out of the gate.

So, I mean, and I'm very, very impressed with what they're doing right now. And I think they're headed towards a very good start.

GWEN IFILL: OK, Paul Light and Peter Baker, we'll be looking for your leak tomorrow. Thank you very much. Thank you both for joining us.

PETER BAKER: Thank you.

PAUL LIGHT: Thank you.