Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Barack Obama and the Culture of Leaks

Throughout the election cycle President-elect Barack Obama and his campaign remained tight-lipped. These days, it's tougher to keep a secret. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

Throughout President-elect Barack Obama's primary and general election campaigns, his political inner circle took an enormous amount of pride from the fact that they did not speak publicly about personnel moves, fundraising numbers or internal strife.

When Obama released his vice presidential pick, it was via a text message to supporters; when the campaign announced it had raised $150 million in September alone, it came in the form of an email from campaign manager David Plouffe.

In other words, Obama made news on his own schedule rather than on the schedule of the horde of reporters -- The Fix included -- who were constantly working for even the small morsel of news. (Left unsaid was the implicit contrast with his two opponents -- Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain -- whose campaigns tended to dole out tidbits of information -- and dirty laundry -- to reporters more frequently.)

Fast forward from the campaign to the transition, however, and a different storyline emerges.

Each day a member of Obama's transition staff sends an email to reporters summing up the planned activities for the president-elect and the vice-president elect -- usually a series of private meetings with, at most, one public event on the schedule.

And, inevitably, each day -- especially of late -- comes to be dominated by the leak of a high-profile appointment to Obama's Cabinet; on Tuesday it was Mike Isikoff of Newsweek reporting that Eric Holder would be Attorney General while on Wednesday it was Roll Call reporting that former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle would be the next head of the Health and Human Services Department.

But, it is the ongoing public drama over Hillary Rodham Clinton and whether or not she will be the next secretary of State that has left some people wondering whether the self-proclaimed "No Drama Obama" is gone.

Rachel Maddow Guest host of "The Rachel Maddow Show" Alison Stewart wondered aloud what had changed in Obama world during her show Tuesday night. Said Stewart:

"We've watched the good ship Obama sail through the roughest waters American politics can churn up, without taking on water, although that Reverend Wright wave was a doozy -- smooth-sailing most of the time, good navigation, and little change of course, and here we are -- with the shore in sight and suddenly, there's a leak, and another, and one more. So many, in fact, that today, we learned the captain of the ship, transition chief, John Podesta, issued a command to all hands on deck, quote, 'If you leak, you're gone.'"

Rick Klein, author of ABC's "The Note" wondered the same thing, asking whether we should be surprised that "President-elect Barack Obama hasn't had complete, leak-proof control of any of his major appointments so far in the transition process? (All this before he names a single member of his Cabinet . . . )."

So, what gives?

In conversations with a number of longtime Democratic operatives familiar with the ways of Washington, they offered a variety of reasons for the cavalcade of leaks but all found agreement on one thing: leaking is a fact of life in political Washington.

"There is nothing they can do about it, vetting and FBI background checks require a lot of calls and that leads to leaks," explained Steve Elmendorf, a longtime aide to former Rep. Dick Gephardt (Mo.) and now a lobbyist.

"It's the era of the Internet, what do you expect?" asked a former Clinton White House senior adviser not involved in the transition process.

The reasons these political veterans offered for the leakage were diverse.

Most, like Elmendorf, cited the fact that unlike on a campaign, where it is possible for a small group of people to keep confidential information, well, confidential, forming a government forces even the most leak-proof operations to expand greatly -- a growth that virtually ensures people with less loyalty to the president-elect will be privy to critical information.

Joel Johnson, a former Clinton White House adviser, ascribed the proliferation of leaks to "healthy growing pains" as part of the Obama transition to the White House. "Campaigning and governing are completely different missions," Johnson said.

Several of the operatives also noted that the current White House was famous for its lack of leaking but that the choices that secrecy led to often had extremely negative political consequences. "The Bush guys never had a leak," said one longtime party strategist. "Look at the garbage they picked."

While the increase in leaks as Obama goes from candidate to president may not have any long term impact on his presidency, it does show that no candidate -- no matter how committed to changing Washington -- can change certain parts of the Beltway culture.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 20, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  White House  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Political Take: Stevens Loses, Lieberman Wins, Clinton at State?
Next: Dunn Stays Out of White House


If I remember correctly, the term "leak" began with Watergate and Attorney General Mitchell's wife. It meant embarrassing and damaging info being given to reporters by people within the administration who were at odds with what was going on. It was red meat for a hostile media. Now, it's a very smart President-elect with a disiplined staff passing along a few helpful crumbs to a media that's eating out of his hand. Leaks? Hardly. This whole thing is carefully planned right from the top.

Posted by: rmpatera | November 22, 2008 9:08 AM | Report abuse

After the Bush White House's culture of secrecy, disinformation, and lies, I find even a "culture of leaks" refreshing, whether it be a trickle or a deluge.

Posted by: Daveyboy1 | November 21, 2008 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Dear Mooretone:

Our federal Constitution's First Amendment protects our free speech rights when it is the government that might seek to limit or control expression of opinion. Thus, I can write here, for example, that I think Geo. Bush is the worst president we have ever had, that torture is a crime even if we call it "enhanced interrogation techniques" and that the war in Iraq was and is a stupid tragic waste of human lives and resources, and the govt cannot, or should not, interfere with my public expression of opinion. But the First Amendment has nothing to do with the rights or obligations or duties of a private entity, such as the Washington Post, which controls that which appears on its pages, including monitoring or refusing to allow those motley opinions that we scribe here.

Posted by: Otney | November 20, 2008 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Honestly - and excuse my wording - this new admin. wolfpack will make the Clintonistas look like a meandering flock of civil servants and file clerks.

Posted by: newbeeboy | November 20, 2008 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Nothing happened by accident or out-of-sequence during that last few Obama years..this is a methodical and almost scary group..

Cold and calculating - don't look for gaffes or slips - you'll be wasting your time.

The central gang and their surrogates control information like the Big Three during WWII. As Sir Winston said...(paraphrasing)..the truth is so valuable it must be surrounded by a bodyguard of lies...

Posted by: newbeeboy | November 20, 2008 5:31 PM | Report abuse

Uhm, gee Chris, maybe it's intentional....


Posted by: brooksie78 | November 20, 2008 2:59 PM | Report abuse

PE BO is doing the smart thing....these aren't leaks...they are floats.

The testament to their vetting at this point is that they've had very few hiccups...if Clinton doesn't end up as won't be because of improper vetting or anything that will remotely look poorly upon the Obama Administration. Yet another example of how to run a first rate campaign and government albeit nascent.

Posted by: afs213 | November 20, 2008 2:42 PM | Report abuse

The 'leak' was another good move by the Preident elect team. If she take the job they can live with it. If so doesn't accept they have all the Clinton Supporters on their side. She may have to refuse because of vthr former President.

The have also sent Ted Kennedy to make offers to her about leading a task forcr on healthcare. She may think that Ted may not be up to all the work required to bring this off and she could be its champion.

Posted by: ronebob | November 20, 2008 1:30 PM | Report abuse

While the press is fixated on Clinton: will she or won't she, Obama and company are free to go about their business relatively unmolested.

Posted by: caribis | November 20, 2008 1:17 PM | Report abuse

and only partisan idiots aren't "scared" right now.

the ONLY thing positive in the past 8 years is that we just threw the morons out who scared us on issues that took our eye off the issues that we should have been scared about.

Posted by: klondike2 | November 20, 2008 1:07 PM | Report abuse


turn on your television

look at the stock market
look at the continental ice shelf
look at what 98% of the scientific community is saying
look at the statistics of loose nuclear weapons
look at the stock market
look at the jobless rates
look at the home values
look at the banks closing
look at the deficit
look at the tatters America's military is in
look at the number of children going hungry in the wealthiest nation in the world
look at healthcare
look at what is about to happen to the retired population and social security
look at whose making the moneys on oil

you have to be an idiot to say dems are using fear.

if this team doesn't succeed...yeah all of these words mean nothing.


there is no more election

there is no need to "scare" anyone now for votes

we are still hanging on a cliff...

and have one team that has to fix this.

Posted by: klondike2 | November 20, 2008 1:04 PM | Report abuse

"Leaks" hardly describes what's happening - this is a torrent. The contrast with the campaign certainly is striking. Some of the leaks, e.g., Daschle getting being both health czar and HHS secretary, must be coming from a fairly high level - this is not just loose lips on the part of those doing the vetting.
Still, one really wonders if the Obama people are really all that upset over the situation. Despite what Podesta is said to have said, they don't seem all that concerned and don't seem to be trying very hard to stop it.
On the flip side, if it weren't for these leaks, very, very little would be coming out of the transition team. The silence would lead to the image that nothing was happening, which would in turn put a lot of pressure on the team to put out some news. At least in this situation you get the impression that the transition team is working hard. I'm inclined to think this has approval at fairly high levels.

Posted by: wmw4 | November 20, 2008 12:57 PM | Report abuse

heres how to find the mole, make a seperate list of important topics, distribute a different one to several top ranking people within his team, whichever false leak gets put out there will let him know which faucet to shut off

Posted by: meeksmen | November 20, 2008 12:13 PM | Report abuse

To "Mooretone" at 11:08 a.m.:

It is this blogger's belief that censorship of political blogs is coming from third parties who are surveilling, intercepting and tampering with internet communications of "targeted" persons -- an apparent unconstitutional violation of First and Fourth Amendment rights to free speech and freedom from unlawful searches and seizures.

Due to the sophisticated technology being employed -- via the insertion of "spoofed (read: faked) pages" -- mainstream media sites have no way of detecting this, because it is NOT happening on their end.

Could this be part of the government programs involving warrantless surveillance?

Read more here:



Posted by: scrivener50 | November 20, 2008 12:01 PM | Report abuse

"I think this exemplifies exactly what one of the Bloggers here, meant when he suggested the Press might consider reformations. To control "Free Speech" by censorship is anti-Constitutional and anti-Free Press arguments. The Washington Post no doubt, in mind, by its own admission, favors censorship so long as it doesn't apply to its use of the 1st Amendment."

Dude, you are deranged.

Posted by: DDAWD | November 20, 2008 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Since I'm not on the Beltway, would I sound really naive in imagining the leak or test balloon came from the Clinton campaign more as a suggestion than a reality, thus confirming the fact that she still believes she can out-strategize the Obama administration? Isn’t this the type of gamesmanship we HOPED to eliminate?

Posted by: lindaj4 | November 20, 2008 11:24 AM | Report abuse

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

I think this exemplifies exactly what one of the Bloggers here, meant when he suggested the Press might consider reformations. To control "Free Speech" by censorship is anti-Constitutional and anti-Free Press arguments. The Washington Post no doubt, in mind, by its own admission, favors censorship so long as it doesn't apply to its use of the 1st Amendment.

Posted by: mooretone | November 20, 2008 11:08 AM | Report abuse

I am just curious if Benjamin Franklin ever envisioned a time in America, where the Press, would hold "Blog Posts" at the Washington Post, for "review" before submitting them? Seems like an oxymoron to me--I thought the 1st Amendment was honored by the very Press it protects. Hmmm.........interesting.

Posted by: mooretone | November 20, 2008 11:03 AM | Report abuse

If leakage in Washington is an irrefutable part of the culture, that's even more reason for it to be managed as carefully as possible. Anyone who thought the Clintons wouldn't leak parts of the confirmation process was kidding themselves. They're not going to change-- power-grabbing is in their DNA, that's what makes them such great politicians. I hope Hillary stays in the Senate for now, where she could actually do a world of good. Bill's current job suits him perfectly too, and no twofers are needed in the Obama cabinet.

Posted by: Poodle1 | November 20, 2008 10:38 AM | Report abuse

One of the biggest complaints against Bush was his lack of transparency. Career civil servants thought it was their duty to out him and his administration at every turn when they disagreed with the policy or decision process. The selections of Emanuel, Craig and Axelrod are telling. It will be very interesting to see how transparent Obama and his administration will be considering the iron fisted control and scripting that have been conducted during the compaign and pre-inauguration period. Will the MSM still play along and fawn over our new president if this pattern persists?

Posted by: wlakner | November 20, 2008 10:35 AM | Report abuse

I remember when the press had a moral obligation to present actual news you could rely upon. Now the media knows it can write editorials and rumors and all will be backed by "the anonymous highly placed staffer". Want to see this CR*P stop? Hold the press accountable for what they write. Have them supply solid sources. The press operated just fine for decades until all the politicians decided to hire them to write "top o' the 24 hour cycle stories". They use the excuse that no one would talk to the press if they did rely upon actual fact with verifiable sources.
What is most important to you real news or manufactured entertainment to manipulate your emotions?
Filing a slander suit used to be a viable method of at least getting some of the CR*P out but that seized being the case long ago.
Have a great day!

Posted by: RetCombatVet | November 20, 2008 10:29 AM | Report abuse

Obama and the Dems are just using Hillary Clinton to accomplish these things:
1. Publicly discredit her again
2. Fan the flames of "Hate Hillary/Hate Women"
3. Say "We Tried" but she failed so now we are off the hook officially and can continue to be the sexist bigots that defined us during our campaign
4. Here is more fodder to make women the butt of jokes on late night TV and SNL.

Everyone have a good time and let the King Obama continue to run your life - especially if you are a low life woman.

Posted by: mgd1 | November 20, 2008 8:33 AM

well said - this is exactly right. it is a boyz club with fewer high level women than W. had, yuk. a remarkable campaign in that his disagreers were bigots but those who disagreed with Hillary were heroic fighters for change and, um, other cool stuff.
Righteous to hate her - racist to even dislike him. I hated this campaign and I am already sick of him. Joe Biden is even less appealing - can't he say 'never mind' and leave?
Hang on NoBama. What goes around, comes around. Happy to see your secret, sexist organization broken up and welcome - Clinton team! Love to see you all back.
HRC in 2012!

Posted by: OrlandoNan | November 20, 2008 10:21 AM | Report abuse

my Lord, the sound of wringing hands in the media is deafening.

Barack is doing just fine.

Posted by: wpost4112 | November 20, 2008 9:54 AM | Report abuse

they are smart they know this...Obama HAS to succeed..and they HAVE to help him or their country and perhaps the planet goes down the tubes.

oh, you've been watching too much chris matthews.

by the way, democrats have their own way of playing the policits of fear right?

country down the tubes?

planet down the tubes?

thats no kind of environment in which to run a democracy and form public policy.

Posted by: dummypants | November 20, 2008 9:32 AM | Report abuse

The idea that Obama ran a "leak-proof" campaign during the primary season is a fairy tale. In fact, it was via back room "leaks" by surrogates that Obama conducted most of his dirty campaigning, while professing to be above the fray, e.g. a four-page memo was "leaked" to the press by Obama operatives just before the South Carolina primary essentially implying that blacks were now questioning whether the Clintons were closet racists -- Hillary's approval ratings among African Americans sank from 82% to 7% over a matter of several days. When Tim Russert confronted him about it during the South Carolina debate, Obama professed to know nothing about it -- riiiiiight. It was via similar tactics (leaks of salacious personal attacks) that Obama torpedoed the campaigns of opponents for the State Senate and US Senate in Illinois. The man is no angel, puhleeze.

Posted by: CarolynRodham | November 20, 2008 9:25 AM | Report abuse

Isn't it fair,...more than fair, to say Obama is stealing the techniques of the Bush whitehouse?

Posted by: usarownow | November 20, 2008 8:58 AM | Report abuse

Sooo too bad you feckless writers did'nt manufacture news as you usually do when Obama refused to describe himself. Truth will out, too bad for the country.

Posted by: usarownow | November 20, 2008 8:56 AM | Report abuse

lets also be clear on this

we tend to interpret the stuff coming out of advisors ingratiating themselves to reporters as the individuals "ego" or the pol themselves' "truth"

or that it is how the relationship is between the two individuals...

this is dumb

they all live on this planet

they all want this team to succeed and get credit for being part of that successful team...


if this team fails...there is a great chance that any of their future careers will not matter.

and they all know that

this is not 1992 or 88 or 2000

this is now...after the Bush administration and it's cronies hacve scared us into our own destruction and we are hanging off the cliff with one hand holding onto a loose rock

Clinton Emanuel Mccain Biden etc etc ...all know this.

so the Jr High antics don't matter.

they are smart they know this...Obama HAS to succeed..and they HAVE to help him or their country and perhaps the planet goes down the tubes.

Posted by: klondike2 | November 20, 2008 8:48 AM | Report abuse

and mgd1

it's not about Obama using Hillary

as it isn't about Hillary using Obama

it is about 2 really good people trying to come together to do jobs they will be really good at in the face of

a tidal wave of despair about to slam us


a machine that is all around them built on people who are looking out for their own careers...while these two know together with Biden and Mccain and others...

they are our only hope at this point.

so all the spin on what obviously is a professional and mutually respectful relationship

(with all the spin on Clinton and Obama...their body language speaks of that despite the spin of their most ardent and blind supporters that hates the other and wants to create some definition of their relationship that doesn't show any sign of existing between the actual 2 people that talk to each other).

Posted by: klondike2 | November 20, 2008 8:41 AM | Report abuse

and be very clear those who leaked from Hillary's staff... whether obama staffers leaked or not...

need to realize that they have set up a situation where Hillary will have to let her loyal staff go because the SOS's staff (the position she obviously wants)

has to be loyal to the Obama team first...

and those who just leaked have called her entire staff into question...because you can't have that on a team


Posted by: klondike2 | November 20, 2008 8:35 AM | Report abuse

Obama and the Dems are just using Hillary Clinton to accomplish these things:
1. Publicly discredit her again
2. Fan the flames of "Hate Hillary/Hate Women"
3. Say "We Tried" but she failed so now we are off the hook officially and can continue to be the sexist bigots that defined us during our campaign
4. Here is more fodder to make women the butt of jokes on late night TV and SNL.

Everyone have a good time and let the King Obama continue to run your life - especially if you are a low life woman.

Posted by: mgd1 | November 20, 2008 8:33 AM | Report abuse

Indeed, campaigning and governing are completely different. I think many if not most of the cabinet appointment leaks are probably by design. Leaks are a way to run things up the flagpole, take the temperature and gague the reaction before you make a public committment to go that route. That way you avoid having to back away from a public committment in the face of greater than expected opposition. Leaks during a campaign demonstrate that you are unsure of your strategy or betray internal disagreements on what to do next which can be damaging to your public image of being confident and in control. McCain did it during his campaign to gague reaction to picking Liberman or Ridge as his Veep and backed down when social conservatives screamed in outrage. But in doing so McCain also avoided the public spectacle of a rebellion within the GOP ranks and the ensuing PR nightmare for his campaign.

I think Obama is doing the same thing now so he can ensure that when he makes his picks "official" he gets swift approval and the resulting confirmation of them. If a "leaked" pick does encounter some greater than expected resistance, Obama can then alter course without appearing to back down in public. A new President doesn't want to betray such signs of real or potential weakness to the public or to members of Congress and "leaks" allow him to avoid reversing course in public.

Posted by: claffiteau | November 20, 2008 8:33 AM | Report abuse

I think the Hillary leak was inevitable...

...having said that they should have tried harder and Podesta should have had that "you leak you're gone" weeks ago.

If they don't say it in the transition how can they control the precedent when governing.

No matter if Emanuel is a bulldog or not...

the precedent is being set. Obama himself needs to pull it in... and say"like you guys...hired you guys...but a leak from anyone means matter how you want to ingratiate yourselves and your importance with your reporter friends..."

and Hillary and Joe B. and Rahm and the rest need to do the same...if she wants the position (which obviously she does and all those morons reporting she was conflicted need to come out and explain how bad their reporting was...and how Bill saying what he did in the face of their bologna they put out yesterday ugh)

but if Hillary wants the job...say thanks but no thanks to the staff that is loyal to her and not Obama.

sorry but that has to be the way it goes.

Posted by: klondike2 | November 20, 2008 8:33 AM | Report abuse

The culture of leaks is one thing, but has anyone considered that the President-elect has leaked the name now to see:

1. How will the American people react? Will they push back similarly to the nomination of Harriet Miers during President Bush's (43) term

2. How will the media treat the choices? It is better to air the dirty laundry now rather than during a confirmation. With Mr. Holder the issues that he had during the last day at the Clinton White House left him with a stigma of being inept. Consider the nomination of Justice Thomas and the pubic hair on my coke story.

My final example consider Gov. Palin. Everyone thought that she was a great choice until people started digging. Once they did they found enough dirt to fill in the Grand Canyon.

While these people are being vetted prior to official announcement allow the media, and the people to do their own investigation, and if they find out something detrimental all it takes is one phone call to say you are no longer on the short list.

Posted by: JustReading | November 20, 2008 8:07 AM | Report abuse




In response to Mr. McDaniel I think that Rahm Emmanuel and Hillary will get along just fine.




Posted by: 37thandOStreetRules | November 20, 2008 8:06 AM | Report abuse

Seems to me that the leaking has been quite strategic -- get the big Clinton one out the door first, drip out a new cabinet appointment every day, thereby dominating that day's newscycle. If leaks can't be prevented, they can at least be well managed, which so far they seem to have.

Also, note the diversity of leaked-to organizations -- the Obama camp is rewarding their media loyalists -- again, smart political move.

Posted by: jenheil | November 20, 2008 8:02 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps the free ride given to Obama from the press is finally over. Now that all the others are out of the race, they actually have to report on something other than how perfect he is and how he does everything right all the time. Perhaps we will see that President elect Obama is a mere mortal and he does not, in fact walk on water.

Posted by: ginnyd | November 20, 2008 8:01 AM | Report abuse

""There is nothing they can do about it, vetting and FBI background checks require a lot of calls and that leads to leaks," explained Steve Elmendorf...".

If you have never been involved in an intensive investigation, obtaining information from old friends, old enemies, and ex-wives, you may not intuit the acute insight into the obvious represented by Elmendorf's explanation.

Posted by: mark_in_austin | November 20, 2008 7:54 AM | Report abuse

What is this inside - inside baseball???




Posted by: 37thandOStreetRules | November 20, 2008 7:51 AM | Report abuse

The Obama transition team has too many high profile, ego driven personalities with experience. That will be the shortfall of his administration: An all-star team will not make him effective. Can you imagine Emanual, Holder, and Clinton in one room trying to discuss anything civilly? Rahm is a serial leaker and looks out for himself. This could be the start of a four year comedy of errors.

Danny L. McDaniel
Lafayette, Indiana

Posted by: ussmcdaniel | November 20, 2008 7:50 AM | Report abuse

Better to have the leaks than the stony silence from the present White House that perpetrated many horrors behind our backs. Not sure what the problem is if the leaks are in the nature of potential Cabinet members. It's also a bit of a trial balloon to get reaction....

Posted by: RickJ | November 20, 2008 7:28 AM | Report abuse

Possibly due to the expanding of the staff. Also, you reporters are working them

One thing I would like to point out though...Rachel Maddow was not on Tuesday, she has been on vacation. There was a substitue host so she couldn't have said anything. I believe it was Alison Stewart that said that.


Posted by: sweetlucy47 | November 20, 2008 6:55 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company