Out of The Spotlight

Obama’s Poverty and Opportunity Dream Team

The most obvious signs that President-Elect Obama cares deeply about cutting poverty...

Welcome to OOTS! OOTS is…a typical D.C. acronym…but OOTS hopes to offer something a bit different for poverty and opportunity mavens. "Out of the Spotlight" is a chance to go behind-the-scenes; our lines are unrehearsed. OOTS is managed by Spotlight  team members, Mike Laracy and Shelly Waters-Boots.  We welcome others into our improvisation. 

Mike & Shelley

Wednesday, November 5th

The results are in, and Senator Barack Obama will become our nation’s 44th President on January 20, 2009. For those of us who are committed to cutting poverty and increasing opportunity for low-income Americans, many signs bode well that his administration will embrace and advance our cause – at least as much as anyone can while facing a nasty recession and a soaring budget deficit.

The most obvious signs that President-Elect Obama cares deeply about cutting poverty are probably in his campaign platform and his speeches and remarks over the last year. On numerous occasions, in a variety of venues, he has shown that he “gets it;” and will try hard to help America’s disadvantaged kids and families. Most notably, his official platform, still available on his campaign website, includes a strong section on poverty, here. 

More recently, he talked about it at the Al Smith Dinner on October 16th. And, way back in 2007, Senator Obama was one of the first of the presidential candidates to supply Spotlight with an eloquent and thoughtful written-statement on poverty and opportunity; check it out here.

But equally important indicators of his concern are the advisors he's surrounded himself with during the long campaign. Here's some of the folks whom we think might be leading candidates for the transition team or for senior positions in the Obama Administration.  All are top-notch, and all really care.  BTW, in no case has OOTS approached the folks listed below for confirmation; not after one insider responded, "If I told you who was on the transition team, I'd have to kill you."

Here’s a baker’s dozen of the folks whose names OOTS hears are, or should be in play:

  1. It starts at the very tippy-top. John Podesta, by most accounts, is slotted to be the top dog in the Obama Transition Team. Right up until Election Day, he was the leader of the top-secret cadre of folks planning for the Obama/Biden transition. John is best known for his stint as President Clinton’s COS, and, more recently, as the founder and President of the Center for American Progress, the nation’s premier progressive “think and action” tank.    Duringhis tenure there, the “CAP Taskforce on Poverty and Prosperity” developed apolicy agenda which, if adopted, would reduce poverty in half within ten years.Having aced the “think” part, John then followed up on the “action” side byhelping to pull together the fledgling Half in Ten Project, a collaborativeeffort between CAP, ACORN, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, and the Coalitionon Human Needs.   Most observerssee HIT as the “big kahuna” in the forthcoming campaign to move this agenda.
  2. Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois is also certain to loom large in the transition, and he’s on many short lists as a candidate for COS in the Obama Administration. Another alum of the Clinton Administration, Rahm recently co-authored with Bruce Reed a great little book, “The Plan: Big Ideas for America,” which includes several proposals that would help low-income families, including an idea to combine and expand the EITC and other refundable tax credits. Although it differs from Obama’s tax cut proposals, it would be a big plus for low-income families with kids.
  3. Joining John Podesta on the short trip across town from CAP to Obama headquarters as Senior Domestic Policy Advisor has been Melody Barnes, until recently the Executive VP for Policy at CAP. Within the Obama team, Melody helps coordinate the domestic policy process under Heather Higginbottom, the campaign's Policy Director. Everybody we know likes and respects Melody. She’s not only wicked smart, she also knows how to get things done in D.C., having done time as Chief Counsel at the Senate Judiciary Committee, where she also served as a long-time advisor to Senator Ted Kennedy. In that role, she helped to fight for civil rights, women’s health and reproductive rights, shape commercial law and religious liberties laws, and review executive branch and judicial appointments. While at CAP, Melody was a driving force behind Half in Ten, a commitment she’ll bring to the transition team and beyond.
  4. Until this summer, Karen Kornbluh was Director for Policy in Obama’s Senate Office; more recently she’s been hanging her hat at the Democratic National Committee, where she was tasked, among other things, with being the principal author of the official Democratic Party platform. Thanks, in part, to Karen’s work, the platform included a section addressing poverty. (Read at ontheissues.org.)  Prior to becoming an Obamista, Karen was the director of the Work and Family program at the iconoclastic New America Foundation. Over the years, she’s earned a reputation as one of that nation’s top experts on work/family issues like family leave insurance and paid sick leave; but one of the things that distinguished her from others in the field was her deep concern about covering low-income workers. Karen also has a reputation as a pragmatic and wide-ranging policy thinker.
  5. Cassandra Butts was mentioned by politico.com as a leading candidate for WH staff secretary… She was also working at CAP (aka the White House in Waiting) where she was Senior VP. Before that, Cassandra was a senior advisor to Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-MO), working as his policy director in 2004 during his presidential bid, where she was a strong and articulate supporter of low-income and working class families.  Another aide who really "gets it."
  6. Jared Bernstein is, by some counts, the single most quoted U.S. economist in the media today. With his quick wit, talent for highly quotable quotes, and analysis, both speedy and sharp, this EPI numbers maven is much in demand. However, the media says that Jared still finds time to serve as an informal economics advisors to Team Obama between gigs on NPR and blurbs in WAPO. Of the devoutly progressive persuasion, he can always be counted on to advocate for low-wage workers and their families. His two most recent books, “All Together Now: Common Sense for a Fair Economy” and “Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries)” both devote big chunks of real estate to the plight of struggling, hard-pressed American families. The only bad thing about Jared going into an Obama administration is that he’d have to stifle that wicked wit!
  7. Becky Blank probably isn’t a transition team type, but if the Obama people are smart – and we know they are – Becky will be on the sort list for any number of cabinet or almost-cabinet-level positions in the new administration. Now at Brookings, Becky returns to Washington after a seven-year stint as dean at the Gerald R Ford School of Public Policy in Michigan, where she took a good program and made it great. Prior to moving to Ann Arbor, Blank served on Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors and taught at both Northwestern and Princeton. Arguably the nation’s top labor and poverty economist, Becky (a Spotlight advisor) is one of the folks leading the effort to overhaul the federal poverty measure. Smart betting is that she’ll succeed.
  8. Mark Greenberg now co-directs the Center on Poverty, Inequality and Public Policy, a joint initiative of the Georgetown University Law Center and the Georgetown Public Policy Institute. He’s also a Senior Fellow and Director of The Poverty and Prosperity program for the Center for American Progress. While at CAP, Mark honchoedthe highly-regarded and influential “CAP Taskforce on Poverty and Prosperity” that developed a policy agenda which, if adopted, would reduce poverty in halfwithin ten years.   In a wonk trifecta, he’s also a senior fellow at the Center for Law and Social Policy, where he used to serve as the Director of Policy. (He’s a Spotlight advisor, too).   When it comes to poverty policy, there ain’t nobody smarter – in fact, he is, IMHO, long overdue for one ofthose nifty MacArthur “Genius” awards.   There’s also nobody who cares more than Mark. 
  9. Olivia Golden is currently a senior fellow at the Urban Institute; she has a long history of caring for low-income children and families, through a distinguished career in government, academia and advocacy.      She has previously served as the director of State Operations in NY, the director the DC’s Child and Family Services, and the Assistant Secretary of Children and Families under the Clinton Administration.  Olivia’s experience and peripatetic knowledge would be a huge asset to USDHHS, which is badly in need of some revitalization.
  10. Neera Tanden is Domestic Policy Director for Team Obama. Previously, Neera served as Policy Director for the Hillary Clinton campaign, where she directed all policy work and coordinated work with policy advisors. She was formerly Senior VP at CAP and served as the Issues Director for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. About 180 DC child advocate types had the pleasure of meeting Neera at an October 17th Obama fund-raiser, where she was the featured surrogate speaker. Folks left impressed!
  11. Lots of folks are also mentioning Heather Higginbottom, the Obama campaign's Policy Director as a shoo-in for a top-tier gig in the new Administration. She signed on early to the Obama camp and has served him well. Prior to this, Heather was deputy national policy director for the Kerry-Edwards ticket in 2004.
  12. Strictly speaking, Jason Furman – the top economist on the Obama campaign team – isn’t a poverty expert; but someone who understands these issues in the larger economic context. He is on leave from Brookings, where he previously served as director of  The Hamilton Project, an initiative aimed at developing policy solutions to promote shared growth and opportunity. He was also a part of the Clinton Administration where he served as special assistant to the president for economic policy and also spent time as a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
  13. Sharon Parrott (and maybe half the staff at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.)  Speaking of the Center, pound for pound there’s no more effective think and action tank in DC than CBPP. Sharon Parrott is the Director of the Welfare Reform and Income Support Division and a policy expert on a host of child and family poverty issues. She also did a stint as a senior manager in the DC welfare system, so she knows poverty issues from the street level as well as the think tank. Remember you heard it from OOTS: come February of 2009, you’ll be able to walk down the office corridors of CBPP – as well as those of CAP and Brookings – and yell out “Helloooo! Is anybody hereee?” and hear nothing but the echo of your voice bouncing off empty office walls!

Well, that our first baker’s dozen of the wonks and hacks whose names we hear most frequently as likely members the “Obama Poverty and Opportunity Team.” Here at “Out of the Spotlight” we love rumors and gossip (at least of the non-malicious type), so if you hear names that you think we should pay attention to, drop us a line at either mlaracy@aecf.org or watersboots@hotmail.com. We’ll post new names as we get ‘em! Of course, OOTS dishes on much more than who might be on the dream team.  Check out "Out of the Spotlight" for our take on behind-the-scenes policy sparring, the twists and turns of political plans, and more. Contributions welcome!