Starting over on its search for a Health and Human Services Secretary, the Obama White House is focusing initially on a group of current and former governors as possible candidates to replace Tom Daschle. But while several may have the qualifications to run the HHS bureaucracy, the real question is whether anyone can replace Daschle when it comes to the harder task of keeping on track President Obama's drive this year to overhaul the health-care system and expand coverage to the 47 million Americans who now lack it. (Read "Did Daschle Bow Out Too Soon, or Was It Inevitable?")
For that, it is probably more important to watch what happens with the second job that Daschle had been slated to hold that of head of a new White House Office of Health Reform. Thus far, Administration officials have not been willing to say if that White House job will even exist in the wake of Daschle's decision to end his bid for Health Secretary amid reports that he had failed to pay $128,000 of income taxes on time. But that White House office was where Daschle's expertise and clout would have mattered the most. While his former deputy Jeanne Lambrew is widely respected for her policy knowledge, no one still there has Daschle's savvy and connections for shepherding legislation through the Senate, where the likes of Ted Kennedy and Max Baucus have their own strongly held notions of what reform should look like. His stature and close relationship with Obama also would have helped fight the impulses of some in the Administration including chief economic adviser Larry Summers to delay the push for health reform until after the economy gets fixed.
One option for the White House job might be a skilled Washington hand like former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, who oversaw the Obama transition operation. Podesta, however, has indicated that he is not interested in returning to government; sources say he turned down the White House "energy czar" job that ultimately went to former EPA Administrator Carol Browner.
For now, Obama advisers say, the more urgent push is filling the top slot at HHS. Aides believe that the crop of current and former Democratic governors provide some possible candidates who have the right credentials. Among them is Kansas' Kathleen Sebelius, who served a stint as the state's insurance commissioner before being elected Governor. Sebelius has the advantage of having already been vetted by the Obama team, in last summer's Vice Presidential search, but she also withdrew her name for Cabinet posts' consideration in early December, citing the deteriorating budget in her home state. Other possibilities include Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell; former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, who has practiced as a physician, and Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, a former managed-care executive.
On Wednesday, as Obama signed into law an expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, he vowed that his push for health reform would move forward. "The way I see it, providing coverage to 11 million children through CHIP is just a down payment on my commitment to cover every single American," the President said. But with Daschle's departure, it is far less clear when or even howhe will pay off the rest of it.