- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

In the past four days, President-elect Barack Obama, once lauded as having the smoothest transition to power in modern history, has learned how hard it is to navigate the political high wire.

His commerce secretary nominee withdrew while facing a grand jury investigating corruption charges; he backpedaled on his Senate replacement; and he infuriated top Democratic senators by failing to consult them on his pick to run the CIA.

The missteps have chafed Capitol Hill allies and proved the difficulty of converting so quickly from candidate to leader of the free world.

The latest example came Wednesday when Mr. Obama offered comments that cleared the way for senior Democrats to seat Roland Burris as his replacement in the Senate, a stunningly absolute and rapid turnaround. Senate Democrats decided to open the way for Mr. Burris to join their ranks just hours after their insistence that any appointment made by embattled Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich should not be honored.

Mr. Obama on Wednesday said he would work with Mr. Burris if he is seated. Last week, he joined Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, in saying emphatically that neither Mr. Burris nor any other Blagojevich appointee could serve in the Senate because of the pay-for-play scandal swirling around the governor. Mr. Obama on Wednesday called the issue a Senate matter.

On top of that, some liberal activists who supported Mr. Obama in the election say they are growing weary of apologizing for his centrist moves and for his selection of Rick Warren, an anti-gay marriage evangelical minister, to deliver the invocation at the inauguration.

Democratic sources said Mr. Obama probably should get used to tension with Congress as his administration and its host of personalities try to navigate major fiscal and foreign policy challenges ahead.

“Any time a new president comes to town it upsets the existing order, and that’s hard for a lot of people,” said Simon Rosenberg of the liberal think tank NDN and a veteran of the Clinton transition and White House.

“It’s not easy to accept that there’s a new boss, and many of the powerful people in Washington have to go through a period of accommodation and transition,” he said. “It’s going to be bumpy and there will be struggles with Congress during the entire Obama administration. It’s part of the job.”

He predicted more noses would “get out of joint” before long because “the American people want change, but change itself is always hard.”

The Obama team long boasted of its thorough vetting, but New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had to pull out of his nomination as commerce secretary because of an ethics investigation. It was an embarrassing setback, especially since Mr. Obama set a record pace for naming his Cabinet members.

“You couldn’t blame President-elect Obama if he were to put his hand on the Bible on Inauguration Day and rather than say, ‘I do,’ ask the chief justice, ‘Can I get back to you?’” joked Democratic strategist Bud Jackson.

But Mr. Rosenberg, who offered wide praise for the transition’s decision making and the incoming team, said he would hardly characterize the few hiccups as major setbacks even though that’s how they are being portrayed in the press.

“Part of it is that the Obama transition set expectations so high,” he said. “What are normal and minor bumps create consternation because it’s been so flawless.”

Also, when news broke this week that Mr. Obama has chosen former Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to lead the CIA, Senate intelligence panel Chairman Dianne Feinstein said she had not been consulted, complaints echoed by other chairmen for previous appointments.

The early leak of the choice even invited a scolding from his own vice president-elect.

“I think it was just a mistake,” not to consult members of Congress, Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. told reporters Tuesday on Capitol Hill, adding that he is “still a Senate man.”

On Wednesday, Mrs. Feinstein said the tiff over her not being notified “is all behind us.”

“I believe there was an oversight and I don’t really care about that. What I do care about is the agency, and that it faces many issues and it has many problems,” Mrs. Feinstein said.

In a later interview with the Associated Press, she said she had spoken with Mr. Panetta on Tuesday night and “had a good discussion with him. I’m confident that he understands. I am supportive.”

Mr. Reid told the Hill newspaper this week that he will stand up for legislative power and call Mr. Obama on it if he “steps over the bounds.”

“I do not work for Barack Obama. I work with him,” Mr. Reid said.

The transition has not announced Mr. Obama’s choice for surgeon general, but CNN confirmed that neurosurgeon and television personality Dr. Sanjay Gupta is being considered for the post.

The news prompted good-natured mocking but also ire from liberals who remember when Dr. Gupta sparred in 2007 with liberal filmmaker Michael Moore, a fight that led CNN to issue two corrections about its reporting about Mr. Moore’s film “Sicko.”

The Huffington Post on Wednesday included two scathing front-page columns about Dr. Gupta, one headlined, “Obama’s latest dumb pick.”

There also are concerns that Mr. Obama’s choice of Mr. Warren to deliver the invocation at the inauguration badly damaged his standing with gays and with liberals who feel Mr. Warren’s opposition to same-sex marriage is extreme and hurtful.

Linda Fowler, a professor of government at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said the move “deeply wounded” many people since Mr. Warren is getting a spot during such a historic day.

“That’s the one that probably turned out to have been tone deaf,” she said.

But others view it as one of many decisions from the Obama team to reach people on the right who did not support him on Election Day.

“We knew that Barack Obama was not a progressive, so we are not surprised about his appointments, though we are disappointed” said Tim Carpenter, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America.

Mr. Carpenter said the groups think Mr. Obama has made a lone progressive pick in Rep. Hilda L. Solis, California Democrat, for labor secretary and that the Cabinet is “not as bold or as forward thinking as we had hoped.”

He said he would work to push Mr. Obama to the left as a reminder that most Americans want an end to the war in Iraq and favor truly universal health care.

A San Francisco Bay Area Democratic activist said patience in that community is wearing thin as Mr. Obama continues to shun liberals and reach for Republican approval.

The last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, vaulted to victory after reaching disaffected voters with his sympathetic assurance of “I feel your pain,” only to falter with missteps and outright blunders.

Like the president-elect, Mr. Clinton conducted his transition from home, Little Rock, Ark. Arriving in Washington just days before his inauguration, he quickly found himself stuck in the center of an issue about which few middle-Americans cared - gays in the military. He split the difference with his “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, angering his liberal base for not fulfilling a campaign promise.

He also suffered from blunders when his first two nominees for attorney general, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, withdrew after questions were raised about domestic workers they had hired.

Miss Fowler said Mr. Obama has been caught in a predicament, saying it is amusing that his picks have been criticized simultaneously for not offering change because they hail from the Clinton administration and, in Mr. Panetta’s case, for not having enough experience.

“This is just people filling up the newspapers because we all know the real news doesn’t happen until January 20,” she said, though she offered her own critique of his secretary of state selection.

“The way Hillary Clinton ran her campaign is clear evidence that she doesn’t know how to run a large complicated organization,” Miss Fowler said.

In another example, as Mrs. Feinstein’s initial response was critical, some of the most liberal lawmakers and online activists like the Panetta pick because it suggests Mr. Obama is resisting pressure to put an intelligence insider into the post.

• Joseph Curl contributed to this report.

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