It may not be one of the most headlined positions in the cabinet, but for 20 percent of the American population—veterans and their dependents—the question of whom President-elect Barack Obama will pick as the secretary of veterans affairs is a big one.
Obama has made ambitious promises to veterans, including reforming the Department of Veterans Affairs, launching programs against homelessness, and improving mental health treatments. Veterans' organizations say they also expect him to tackle the problem of some 800,000 backlogged disabilities claims and to focus on effective implementation of the new GI bill.
In order to accomplish any of these goals, he'll need someone who can shake up a notoriously slow-moving bureaucracy. Insiders say he's particularly looking for an up-and-comer on the youthful side who can bring change to the VA.
Several names are flying around Washington. One possibility—Chet Edwards, a congressman from Texas—took himself out of the running this week, telling Obama that he'll stay in the House. Here are some of the most talked-about names.
Tammy Duckworth, Illinois veterans affairs director. Many insiders say that Duckworth is the top contender for the spot, even though Duckworth herself has said she hasn't heard from Obama. But she has a number of advantages as Obama picks his team.
First, various veterans' advocates have lauded her for her leadership. In her two years as VA state director, she helped expand programs to offer low-interest home loans for veterans, free screenings for traumatic brain injury, and a 24-hour hotline for post-traumatic stress syndrome sufferers. And as a 40-year-old Army National Guard pilot who lost both legs in Iraq in 2004, she has experienced firsthand the frustrations of the VA disabilities system, a perspective veterans would welcome.
Then there's the fact that her background boosts Obama's message of inclusion and change. Born in Thailand and raised in Hawaii, Duckworth is Asian-American. And she'd be the first woman to serve as head of the VA at a time when women make up 14 percent of the armed forces.
Something else in her favor is that Duckworth is no stranger to Obama; she spoke at this year's Democratic National Convention in his support. She also accompanied Obama for a wreath-laying ceremony on Veterans Day in Chicago, kicking up cabinet conjectures.
Even if Duckworth doesn't wind up in Obama's cabinet, though, it's possible that she'll be following him to Washington. Duckworth, who ran a failed congressional bid in 2006, has been reportedly short-listed to replace Obama in the Senate. She has said that she'd be honored by being considered for either post. But there's no news yet on whether either one has been offered officially.
Max Cleland, former senator and former administrator of the VA. The other front-runner is a familiar one in veterans' circles. At the age of 34, Cleland, a triple amputee for his Vietnam War injuries, took over the VA under President Jimmy Carter. As director, he gained a reputation for reform, pursuing policies that ranged from expanding medical treatment for the disabled to computerizing VA record-keeping.
More recently, Cleland served as a senator from Georgia until he lost a tough re-election fight in 2002. And for Democrats, that loss could be part of the cherry on top for the choice of Cleland. His opponent released ads that asked if the decorated veteran had the courage to lead—damage that, supporters say, his pick as secretary could undo once and for all.
Cleland's experience and reputation for reform make him a top option, even though the Obama campaign abruptly disinvited him from a July fundraiser for being a lobbyist., Grass-roots support has been building for the selection of Cleland, seen by many as heroic for his Democratic activism. The 66-year-old's name is also being circulated as the new secretary of the Army.
James Peake, current secretary of the VA. One "dark horse" pick by Obama could be to keep Peake on. Appointed by Bush to the position in 2007, the decorated Vietnam veteran, 64, has overseen expanded mental-health care, an increase in how much free medical care veterans can receive, and the department's offerings of VA-guaranteed home loans to veterans slammed by subprime mortgages. But he has admitted that progress in other areas, like the backlog of disabilities claims, has been slower than he'd like. Difficulties aside, supporters see him as a competent, experienced option for the job.
Paul Rieckhoff, founder and director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Although Hill insiders say they haven't heard his name mentioned as a contender, some blogs are buzzing with the possibility. An Iraq war veteran, 33-year-old Rieckhoff created IAVA in 2004. It has become one of the most vocal veterans organizations, most recently leading the fight for a new GI bill. Rieckhoff himself is no less vigorous. One of the first soldiers returning from Iraq to criticize the war publicly and demand accountability and better care for veterans, he has appeared on hundreds of media programs and written a book on his Iraq service. In the wake of Obama's victory, he published a memo listing three critical policies he wants to see tackled in the first 100 days of the new presidency. He'd be an energetic addition to the Obama cabinet.
Arnold Fisher, partner in real estate firm Fisher Brothers and former chairman of the Fisher House Foundation. The 75-year-old Korean War veteran brings to the table a passion for philanthropy. For four years, he led a charity that donates homes so that more than 10,000 military families each year can stay close to a loved one during a hospitalization; his son now heads it. He is involved with the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, which gives grants to families of military personnel killed during service, and was made an honorary knight of the British Empire in 2005 for helping British Armed Forces families. His age could be seen as a handicap, but his significant leadership experience and concern for veterans' issues might keep his name on the table.
Patrick Murphy, congressman from Pennsylvania. A decorated Iraq war veteran and former West Point professor, Murphy has gained a reputation for his advocacy of veterans, earning a rare perfect score from IAVA on its congressional report card. He has cosponsored legislation on several significant issues, including funding up to four years of education for service members, mandating a mental-health evaluation for new veterans, and requiring the VA to screen veterans for traumatic brain injury and for risk factors of suicide. Politically, his pick could make sense. The 35-year-old is seen as an up-and-comer in the Democratic Party, winning his second House term by 15 percentage points. And as the first nonblack lawmaker outside Illinois to pledge his support for Obama, as well as a volunteer who stumped for him before the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, he has positioned himself well for a job in the new administration.
Phillip Carter, Obama campaign's top veterans adviser. Before he joined the campaign in June, Carter was in Iraq, first as a military police officer with the Army, then as an embedded adviser with the Iraqi police. But his experience isn't just military. Along with his background as an Obama adviser and spokesperson, the 33-year-old has practiced law and been published in Slate and the Washington Post. With rumors swirling that Obama wants to pick a young figure from his campaign, Carter could be a possibility.