Obama’s Good Luck: Sebelius Set to Replace Daschle

by Randy Shaw on March 2, 2009

Ed note: This story originally ran on February 20, and is being reposted as Obama is appointing Sebelius today.

It’s allegedly better to be lucky than good. Barack Obama has great political skills, but it took luck to give him the chance to replace a tarnished Tom Daschle with a far more credible Kathleen Sebelius as Health and Human Services Secretary. The Kansas Governor is slated to be appointed to the job, and will be the point person on the President’s drive for universal health care. While Obama long lauded Daschle, the latter’s close ties with giant health care corporations always made him a questionable choice. But Daschle’s tax avoidance gave Obama—and health care advocates— the break needed to select a woman who has a positive track record on public interest health care reform, and who knows how to win the support of Senate moderates whose votes will prove decisive.

Here is a story that I recount in my new book that gives insight into Kansas Governor and soon to be HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

During HERE Local 2’s long boycott of San Francisco’s Marriot Hotel, organizers tried to stop conventions from meeting at the hotel. Among these conventions was the National Association of State Insurance Commissioners, not exactly the prototype pro-labor group.

But the head of the group was Kansas Commissioner Kathleen Sebelius. And despite coming from one of the least unionized states in the nation, a place where Republicans rule, she took a stand and shifted the convention away from the Marriot.

Sebelius went on to become governor of the conservative state, and was easily re-elected. And she somehow did so without compromising her surprisingly (for that state) progressive principles.

Vast Improvement over DC Insider

For all the talk of Daschle knowing the players in the health care debate, it was clear that his “experience” undermined his credibility as a dealmaker. Few trust a guy whose getting rich off health care companies.

Daschle was somewhat of a mentor to Barack Obama, and clearly had the President’s confidence. Fortunately for our politically lucky leader, he did not get the chance to see how his confidence in the former Senate Majority Leader was misplaced.

Last May, Sebelius was my choice for Obama’s VP. I emphasized her record of standing up to the health care industry, which gives her the type of credibility that Daschle lacked.

Many wanted Howard Dean for the HHS post, and will be disappointed by Sebelius. But as great as is my admiration for Dean — who did nothing short of help revolutionize U.S..politics — this position requires a different skill set from Dean’s strengths.

The people likely most troubled by a Sibelius appointment are the cable news chatterers, right-wing talkers and their GOP allies — unlike Daschle, Sebelius does not present a juicy target to focus on as they attempt to repeat their 1994 success at killing health care for all.

Randy Shaw is the author of the new book,
Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century (University of California Press)

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