Obama formally puts Kaine in charge of DNC

Expect the Democratic National Committee to pick up where Obama's campaign left off, as Tim Kaine -- a longtime Barack Obama backer -- takes control.

Published January 8, 2009 9:29PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- The problem, for Barack Obama? How to announce that Tim Kaine is his choice to be the new Democratic National Committee chairman without stepping on the other big news of the day, Obama's speech on his economic stimulus plan earlier this morning.

The solution? Keep the Kaine thing as news-free as possible. Aides billed it as a press conference, but Obama's event with Kaine at the DNC was, really, more of a lecture -- Obama and Kaine strolled into the room, spoke for a combined total of 10 minutes, and walked right back out, without taking any questions. (Not even the strange one a reporter shouted out as they left: "What's the symbolism of your tie?")

Obama made clear that he expected Kaine to help the White House keep the grassroots involved in policy next year. "At a time when the challenges we face in this country are so vast, we cannot afford to abandon the movement we've built," he said. "We have to strengthen it. We must build a movement for change that can endure beyond a single election, and that will require redoubling our efforts to reach out to Americans throughout our 50 states, north and south, east and west."

He thanked Howard Dean, the outgoing chairman, though Dean wasn't at the event, for reasons that aren't entirely clear. And then he praised Kaine's record as Virginia governor, a job he'll be juggling with the DNC post for the next year. (There was a certain irony in the fact that the governor of Virginia was being named the DNC chairman only a few days after another former DNC chairman formally announced he'd be running for Virginia governor.)

Kaine was an early supporter of Obama's who helped him carry the state in the primary and the general election, and he made the final cut for vice presidential candidates before Obama picked Joe Biden. It took some work to persuade him to take the job. But today, it certainly didn't seem like Kaine thought running the DNC was a step down; he had a wide grin as Obama spoke.

"I want to promote this president's agenda," Kaine said. "I want to carry the proud banner of a proud party. And I want to work to creatively engage citizens in new ways through this party to be active in civic life."

That probably covers just about all of his duties. Since the election, there had been a steady debate over whether Obama's massive organization should be housed out of the DNC or in some new, more independent group. But with Kaine -- a close loyalist -- as chairman, and Jen O'Malley Dillon -- a key organizer for Obama -- as the party's executive director it's clear the DNC will basically absorb Obama's campaign infrastructure. With, of course, an eye on the 2010 elections and -- it's never too early -- Obama's 2012 reelection bid. Being party chairman when your party controls the White House basically means you're a high-profile fundraiser; the strategic decisions about political questions will probably be answered across town by Obama's advisors.

Update: Politico's Ben Smith reports that Dean's absence was due to a scheduling conflict, which is "being taken by some close to Dean as a snub." Smith also notes that when Obama applauded the outgoing chair for winning back control of the House of Representatives, he referred to him "working with my chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel." Since the two men had actually clashed over strategy in 2006, and Dean's ideas proved successful, at least one "prominent Dean loyalist" was angry about the remark, e-mailing Smith, "This is really insulting."

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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