President-elect Barack Obama has answered bipartisan calls for the disbandment of the White House office central to the Karl Rove-style politics the Democrat condemned as a candidate. The office stays.
Patrick Gaspard, a New Yorker and longtime labor operative, will head the Office of Political Affairs, the Obama transition announced on Friday.
Gaspard was national political director for the Obama campaign and has been an associate director for personnel for the transition.
The office he will oversee has been strongly denounced by some Republicans and Democrats, including Obama's former opponent Sen. John McCain, who vowed to abolish the office if he were elected, and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who issued a report last month recommending its elimination.
Obama had remained largely silent on the office's future in his administration - both during the campaign and in the first few weeks of transition.
An Obama transition spokeswoman said that keeping the office open does not mean the president-elect will default on his campaign promise to change politics-as-usual in Washington, which as a candidate he dubbed the "perpetual campaign."
"An Obama White House will be focused on meeting the next challenge, not winning the next election," transition spokeswoman Jen Psaki wrote in an email Friday evening. "That is what he promised in the campaign and that is how he will govern."
The Office of Political Affairs was created by President Ronald Reagan. And while it has been criticized for as long, it has also been staffed by every president since.
Opponents of the office argue that a partisan political office has no business being in the White House.
“It’s not an office that should be subsidized by taxpayers, and it should not be part of the White House itself,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist with the government watchdog group Public Citizen. The office has no benefit for the public, he said.
“I’m really disappointed,” Holman said of Obama’s decision. “I really didn’t think he was going to keep it.”
It’s a move Republicans will seize upon. “Many voters will be disappointed that Barack Obama is doing nothing to make his White House less political,” Republican National Committee spokesman, Alex Conant, wrote in an email responding to Gaspard’s appointment.
But others, particularly those who’ve served in previous presidential administrations, have defended the office, saying the nation’s chief executive needs someone in the White House to give him a sense of the political impact of policies and legislation.
“Every White House needs a political operation,” Edward J. Rollins, White House political director under Reagan, wrote in a New York Times op-ed published in Friday’s paper.
Rollins urged Obama to keep the office, writing, “When he takes office, Mr. Obama will face major challenges. A political office that lets him communicate with his supporters and mobilize them for important battles will be essential.”
Part of Obama’s dilemma in deciding whether to staff the office - if it ever was a question - is the unprecedented support network he amassed during his campaign.
His campaign has a list of 3 million contributors and contact information for 10 million supporters. The Obama transition is trying to figure out how to maximize the potential of this support network, even as the transition collects more email addresses through its Web site, change.gov.
The Office of Political Affairs could have a role in determining how to mobilize this support.
The office’s newly-named director is known for keeping a low profile, in contrast to the social networking, public-display-of-governing style that has been a defining trait of the Obama campaign and transition..
A veteran in New York Democratic politics, Gaspard, who was born in Haiti, helped out on Jesse Jackson’s 1988 and Howard Dean's 2004 presidential runs, and worked for then New York City Mayor David Dinkins.
Most recently, Gaspard left his position as executive vice president for politics and legislation at the politically potent Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, United Healthcare Workers East.
A former colleague recently described Gaspard to Politico as “hardworking, loyal and very private.” New York lobbyist and political consultant Jennifer Cunningham, who was Gaspard’s boss at 1199, also recently told Politico, “He is very discreet, very professional and all about results.”
In other formal White House staff announcements from the transition on Friday:
The Obama campaign’s Iowa state director, Jackie Norris, will be Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. Jill Biden’s chief of staff will be Catherine M. Russell, who had the same role during the campaign. Cynthia Hogan, who has been Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s counsel in the Senate for almost two decades, was named counsel to the vice president. And Moises V. Vela, Jr., who was chief financial officer and senior advisor on Hispanic affairs for Al Gore, was tapped as director of administration for the vice president’s office.
“This group of public servants will bring decades of expertise to my administration,” Obama said in a statement released by the transition, “and I'll rely on their counsel and hard work as we fix our struggling economy and meet the great challenges of our time.”