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President-elect Barack Obama listens to his nominee for the Department of Health and Human Services, former Sen. Tom Daschle, during a press conference in Chicago on Thursday.
President-elect Barack Obama listens to his nominee for the Department of Health and Human Services, former Sen. Tom Daschle, during a press conference in Chicago on Thursday. Nicholas Kamm/Getty Images
Former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle may not have the most health expertise of President-elect Obama's advisers.
But by nominating the former Senate Democratic leader to the dual roles of health and human services secretary and head of the new White House Office of Health Reform, Obama is sending a signal that he is serious about making a major effort to overhaul the nation's health care system.
Daschle was one of Obama's earliest and strongest supporters, and could have had almost any post he wanted in the new administration. The choice of health and human services clearly means that health will not become a back-burner issue, as some had feared when the economy soured this fall.
In announcing Daschle at a news conference in Chicago on Thursday, Obama said: "The time has come — this year, in this new administration — to modernize our health care system for the 21st century; to reduce costs for families and businesses; and to finally provide affordable, accessible health care for every American."
In Daschle, Obama has chosen a lawmaker known for his political and policymaking skills. He is a longtime student of the ways of Washington: He began his career as a Senate aide in 1973, then won election to the U.S. House in 1978 and the Senate in 1986. He became Senate Democratic leader in 1994, and served in that capacity until he was defeated for re-election 10 years later.
Mild-mannered and soft-spoken, Daschle could be strongly partisan when he needed to as party leader. But he could also strike a bipartisan deal. And as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, he was called on repeatedly to deal with a wide variety of health issues relating to Medicare, Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program.
It was Daschle's experience negotiating complex health legislation, in fact, that led him to write a book, published in early 2008, suggesting the creation of an independent health care board that could take some of those decisions out of the hands of lawmakers ill-equipped to handle them.
"(T)he American people need to know that decisions on coverage and cost are being made for the public good, and aren't tainted by politics or special interests," he wrote in Critical: What We Can Do About The Health-Care Crisis.
One of Daschle's co-authors on that book will serve as his deputy in the White House. Jeanne Lambrew is a former Clinton administration health official who has taught health policy at the University of Texas and George Washington University. Lambrew is well-known in Washington health policy circles and helped in the creation of the State Children's Health Insurance Program.