Obama Camp Looks to Avoid Bush Rift

Posted November 11, 2008 at 4:15pm

President-elect Obama’s transition director, John Podesta, called White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten on Tuesday morning to defuse potential fallout over a story in the Washington Post that said Bush had told Obama during a private White House meeting Monday that he would only agree to a new stimulus package if Democrats dropped opposition to moving the Colombia free-trade deal.

The White House today heatedly denied that the statement was made, and Bush administration officials are said to be unhappy that details of the conversation were leaked — seemingly by the Obama camp. The Post story in the print edition cited a senior Obama aide as the source, but by this afternoon the Web site version was quoting knowledgeable sources.

Podesta, who briefed reporters today at Obama’s transition headquarters in Washington, confirmed that while the issues came up in the conversation, Bush did not make consideration of a stimulus package contingent on the Colombia trade deal.

Podesta, chief of staff under then-President Bill Clinton, did not say that the incident caused acrimony between the White House and the transition effort. But he did say of Bolten: “When we have a disagreement, we know to pick up the phone and talk about it.”

Podesta described some nuts and bolts of the transition, saying the effort comprised some 450 people with a budget of $12 million. Congress appropriated about $5.2 million of that, while the rest is being paid for with private funds.

More than 100 interim security clearances have been granted to Obama staffers, a process that began before Election Day.

While saying the first criterion for service in the administration would be “excellence,” Podesta did not deny a robust campaign to promote diversity, including the recruitment of a number of Republicans — beyond having a “token” member of the GOP in the Cabinet.

After Podesta’s remarks, Obama aides said that while no Cabinet members would be unveiled this week, further White House appointments can be expected in the near term. Podesta said the incoming Obama administration would try to expedite the appointment of Cabinet officials, which generally is not done before December.

Dan Tarullo, a former international economic affairs adviser to Clinton, is now playing a key role as an economic emissary for the transition, officials said, serving as the point man to both Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and the White House economics team. It is unclear what post Tarullo might assume in Obama’s administration, however.