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U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson poses for a photo in his new home in Ottawa shortly after his arrival in 2009. (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)
U.S. Ambassador to Canada David Jacobson poses for a photo in his new home in Ottawa shortly after his arrival in 2009. (Brigitte Bouvier For The Globe and Mail)

COLIN ROBERTSON

Will Obama appoint the first woman to Ottawa? Add to ...

In setting the agenda for his second term, President Barack Obama’s first order of business (which has already started) is creating a cabinet and putting names to the more than 5,000 appointed jobs in the executive, some of which require Senate approval.

When John F. Kennedy was president, only about 280 executive-branch positions required Senate approval. That number has since escalated into four digits, despite Senate agreement last year to streamline the nomination process by exempting about 170 positions that do not involve policy making.

The most important positions, all of which require Senate consent, are the cabinet secretaries. In order of precedence (with current incumbent in brackets) they are: State (Hillary Clinton), Treasury (Timothy Geithner), Defence (Leon Panetta), Justice (Attorney-General Eric Holder), Interior (Ken Salazar), Agriculture (Tom Vilsack), Commerce (Rebecca Blank is acting secretary), Labor (Hilda Solis), Health and Human Services (Kathleen Sibelius), Housing and Urban Development (Shaun Donovan),Transportation (Ray LaHood), Energy (Steven Chu), Education (Arne Duncan), Veterans Affairs (Eric Shineski), Homeland Security (Janet Napolitano).

For now, the only cabinet members who have indicated they want to stay for the second term are Ms. Napolitano, Mr. Shineski, Ms. Sibelius and Mr. Holder.

Mr. Obama has nominated Massachusetts Senator and 2004 Democratic standard-bearer John Kerry as Secretary of State, former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense and Deputy National Security Advisor for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Their confirmation hearings will begin in the coming weeks.

Cabinet-level positions also include the White House chief of staff (Jack Lew, who is Obama’s Treasury nominee), Director of the Office of Management and Budget (Jeffrey Zients), Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (Lisa Jackson, who is stepping down), U.S. Trade Representative (Ron Kirk), Ambassador to the United Nations (Susan Rice), Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors (Alan Krueger) and Administrator of the Small Business Administration (Karen Mills). They serve at the pleasure of the President with an annual salary of $199,700.

All of these positions are important and Canadian cabinet ministers and senior civil servants should get to know their counterparts, because it’s all about relationships.

The job that most directly affects Canadians, of course, is the ambassador to Ottawa, currently served by David Jacobson. It is a position that also must be confirmed by the Senate.

Nomination hearings can be the stuff of Hollywood screenplays – a packed room with a full complement of senators both defending and ‘prosecuting’ the nominee. This is often the case with judicial appointments, as I witnessed during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito in January, 2006.

But as often as not, they are routine – almost cavalierly so – as I saw with the Senate Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere subcommittee nomination hearing in May, 2005, for South Carolina speaker David Wilkins. He became the second George W. Bush ambassador to Canada.

Chair Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican senator, was the sole member on the dais. Mr. Wilkins’ advocates, essentially character witnesses, were led by the senior senator from South Carolina, Lindsay Graham, with two senators – Democrat Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Jim DeMint of South Carolina – speaking their support.

There was a brief statement about Canada-U.S. relations and his objectives from Mr. Wilkins, a few questions from Mr. Coleman on security, ballistic missile defence, border transit and the problems encountered by Minnesota fishermen on Lake of the Woods (a reminder that all politics is local). It was over within 36 minutes.

Full committee and Senate confirmation followed quickly and there was a celebratory send-off for Mr. Wilkins in the Benjamin Franklin room on the eighth floor of the State Department. Mr. Franklin is considered to be the father of the American foreign service.

The current U.S. ambassador, Mr. Jacobson, was a businessman-lawyer from Chicago who served on the Obama fundraising team and then in the Office of Personnel Management of the Obama White House. The latter responsibility meant he was involved in all of Mr. Obama’s senior appointments. Mr. Jacobson’s own nomination was delayed when then-Democrat Senator Chris Dodd put a hold on consideration of his appointment because of unhappiness with another appointment.

Mr. Jacobson has done a superb job stick-handling the ‘irritants’ and ‘transactionals,’ ranging from granny-chasing IRS agents to ballast water on the St. Lawrence. He also played a lead role in the design, negotiation and implementation (still incomplete) of initiatives aimed at regulatory alignment and making border access easier for people, goods and services. His successor will have to carry this forward.

From a Canadian perspective, we want an ambassador who has the confidence of the President and the ability to pick up the phone and get through to the White House. Mr. Jacobson and his immediate predecessors have had this capacity.

Two of them – Jim Blanchard of Michigan (Bill Clinton) and Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts (George W. Bush) – were former governors. David Wilkins (George W. Bush had served as speaker of the South Carolina legislature while Gordon Giffin (Clinton) was a businessman-lawyer from Georgia who had served as a senior advisor to Senator Sam Nunn.

The New York Times recently published a photo of Mr. Obama and senior advisors. They’re all men — and so are the proposed new top foreign and defence policy cabinet members and chief of staff. It is a sensitive point — the White House followed up The Times photo with one of their own that included women advisors. So we may soon see the first woman named as U.S. ambassador to Canada.

Who that might be? Several names are in play:

Christine Gregoire, former Washington state governor and architect, with then-premier Gordon Campbell, of the ‘smart driver’s license’. She knows Canada very well and would be a logical nominee but she is likely to be offered a cabinet position.

Jennifer Granholm, former Michigan governor and someone very familiar with the border and the Windsor-Detroit second crossing, which awaits a presidential permit before construction can begin. Born in Vancouver, she also might be put in cabinet.

Olympia Snowe, former three-term moderate Republican Senator from Maine, who chose not to run in the recent election. She knows border issues very well.

Michele Flournoy, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy of the United States and founder of the Center for New American Security. She has instant credibility on security issues.

Maryscott Greenwood, managing director at a Washington law firm (for which I work) and leading light of the Canadian American Business Council. If Howard Dean had become president in 2004 she likely would have become his ambassador to Canada. She has intimate knowledge of Capitol Hill and experience in Canada-U.S. issues since her time in a foreign service posting in Ottawa during the Clinton administration.

As for men?

Brian Schweitzer, former governor of Montana, a folksy but shrewd speaker and strong supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline and the alliance with Canada. He also would be in contention for a cabinet job.

John Podesta, former Clinton chief of staff and transition chief for the first Obama administration. Currently chair of the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank that acts as a bullpen for the White House, Mr. Podesta is no fan of the oil sands.

General (ret.) Chuck Wald, former deputy commander of U.S. forces in Europe, a fighter pilot and a former National Football League draft pick. He is now with Deloitte and active on the defense policy think-tank circuit.

Anthony Foxx, the Charlotte, North Carolina, African-American mayor who hosted the successful Democratic convention in September.

Any one of these individuals could carry on the work of Mr. Jacobson. That many have held office at the municipal or state level underlines another feature of the American system of government: it’s much more of a progressive ladder for office-holders than in Canada. Four of the last six presidents were governors and this year’s GOP nominee, Mitt Romney, served as governor of Massachusetts.

It’s a reminder of the importance of involving all Canadian elected officials, especially those at the federal, state and territorial level, in reaching out to their U.S. counterparts to advance Canadian interests. You never know where those people will wind up. Early connections can pay rich dividends. But it’s up to us to take the initiative.

Colin Robertson, a former Canadian diplomat who held several high-level posts in the United States, is currently Senior Strategic Advisor for McKenna, Long and Aldridge LLP.

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