Scramble for top jobs at the White House

As the celebrations subside, the task of appointing key lieutenants begins. Leonard Doyle reports from Washington

The fizz had barely gone from the champagne flutes when President-elect Barack Obama received his first official national security briefing yesterday morning.

There is urgency all around. With two wars raging and an economic crisis on a scale not seen since the Great Depression, Mr Obama needs to assemble an administration that will start delivering on his promise to transform Washington.

The President-elect is expected to operate from his Chicago headquarters for the next two months, but a vast suite of offices has already been set aside in Washington.

Strict protocol means that Mr Obama has no formal power until the moment of the hand-over, at lunchtime on Tuesday 20 January. For foreign policy, for example, the most the President-elect is expected to do is to accept a few congratulatory phone calls from overseas.

As a sitting senator and President-elect, Mr Obama is in a unique position however. With Congress convening in two weeks' time for its final "lame duck" session, he must now decide whether to keep his distance, as his allies are advising.

The process of assembling a cabinet began before the election, with his staff hinting at the potential for "outside the box" picks for top jobs. Democratic party sources last night said that Mr Obama had appointed the Illinois congressman Rahm Emanuel, a former aide to Bill Clinton, as his White House chief of staff.

Mr Obama helped deliver a Democratic majority in Congress but needs an accomplished insider to drive his agenda. Mr Emanuel has coveted the job of House speaker, but may defer that ambition.

Mr Obama also needs to find roles for the political aides who delivered his victory, including his campaign manager David Plouffe, chief strategist David Axelrod, and his communications team, headed by Robert Gibbs and Dan Pfeiffer.

Interim appointments will be announced at any time, so that Mr Obama's team will be ready as soon as he formally takes power. But while he may quickly select his staff, the appointments only become effective when he has formal Congressional approval. That will happen after he has taken office.

The most vulnerable time will be the first days after 20 January 2008, when he has to rely on his gut instincts and will not have high level counsellors in place to guide him. Instead there will be a cacophony from those who have been advising his campaign. There are 300 advisers on foreign policy alone.

Many of the names being bandied about for top positions will quickly pass the vetting process. John Kerry is a hot favourite for Secretary of State. Other names include Richard Holbrooke and Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico.

For Secretary of Defence, Mr Obama has hinted that he would like to keep Robert Gates. Another name in the mix is Chuck Hagel, the outgoing Republican senator from Nebraska much loved by Democrats for opposing the war in Iraq. For national security adviser it would be a shock if he does not choose Susan Rice, the public face of his foreign policy throughout the campaign, and another holdover from the Clinton administration. Senator Clinton may be offered the post of health reform supremo, but it is unclear whether she would accept.

The challenges Mr Obama faces taking over from the ideologically hostile Bush administration cannot be overestimated. Although Mr Bush offered a hand while congratulating him on his election, behind the scenes he has been ramming through measures to secure his legacy as a friend of big business.

Once these executive orders are published in the federal register they will be hard to repeal.

Commentators compare the situation to the inauguration of Franklin D Roosevelt in the depths of the economic misery of 1933. In those days an incoming president simply named his cabinet and got on with the job. Not any more. Now it can take weeks or months to get a cabinet in place and bedded down.

That is why Mr Obama appointed the former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta as head of his transition team some months ago. Many names have already been submitted to the FBI to get security clearance. But it is a slow process.

The word is that Mr Obama will move "quickly, but not hastily" in putting together his senior team. What he will want to avoid is making the mistakes that surrounded President-elect Clinton in 1992 and cast a shadow over his first four years. He took six weeks to pick cabinet and White House positions, and five days before his inauguration named his White House staff, far too late for a smooth transition.

Extreme makeover: First ladies and new drapes

If history is a guide, the White House is in for an extreme makeover by its next occupants. It's not just that the imposing 132-room mansion, with its 35 bathrooms, 28 fireplaces, and eight staircases needs to be made into a home for a lively family with two young children and their puppy. There is the question of taste.

One of Barack Obama's first moves will be to take the flat-screen TV out of the famous Lincoln bedroom, where only the most important guests are invited to stay. "You have all these mementos of Abraham Lincoln, but you have this flat-screen TV in there," he said describing a tour he made as US senator. "I thought to myself, 'Now, who stays in the Lincoln Bedroom and watches Sports Centre? That didn't seem to me to be appropriate. You should read when you're in the Lincoln bedroom! Reread the Gettysburg Address. Don't watch TV."

Incoming first ladies also have a habit of upsetting their predecessors by complaining about the décor they inherit. Laura Bush, for example, pointed a disapproving finger at Hillary Clinton, commenting on her poor housekeeping and supposed bad taste during her eight years in the White House. Mrs Bush threw out the bold colours and striped sofas Mrs Clinton used, preferring muted pastels for drapes and soft furnishings.

The White House already has a swimming pool and tennis courts, but it is almost certain that the Obama presidency will require a basketball court. Mr Obama likes nothing better than to "shoot hoops" each morning.

A president-elect's choice of artwork in the Oval Office is always heavily scrutinised. George Bush has a statue of Churchill and Ronald Reagan had a bronze of a cowboy.

We don't yet know if the incoming First Lady, Michelle Obama, is planning to get the decorators in, but as the first African-Americans to take up residence, it's a fair bet that some of the artwork, if not the curtains, will be changing and that there will be fewer statues and paintings of "DWMs" or dead white males.

Mrs Obama may want more than the drapes cleaned and a new lick of paint when she shows up with the kids and the puppy.

Leonard Doyle