Kathleen Sebelius, Completing The Obama Puzzle

Kathleen Sebelius, Completing The Obama Puzzle

When weighing Kathleen Sebelius' potential as a possible vice presidential pick for Barack Obama, it's useful to consider two separate instances when the Kansas Governor confronted President George W. Bush.

In May 2007, after a devastating tornado had wiped out the town of Greensburg, Sebelius was quick to highlight one of the unspoken truths of the recovery episode: Kansas lacked the resources and manpower it needed because much of the state's National Guard resources had been sent to Iraq. Going public, she repeatedly took jabs at Bush, scolding his Iraq policies for creating a readiness gap at home. Her rebukes earned her accolades in Kansas and with the press. It also prompted the scorn of several Bush lackeys -- a not-too-unfortunate wrist slapping for an emerging Democratic official.

Less than a year later, Sebelius' national stature landed her in another prime-time position, again opposite the president. This time, however, her task was far more thankless. Asked to give the response to Bush's final State of the Union address, Sebelius stumbled, offering up what observers deemed a fairly safe, some said milquetoast, address.

Taken together, these two Bush-related episodes could be considered the polar ends of the Kathleen Sebelius experience. To be fair, the median of the Kansas governor's attributes lie definitively closer to the person who eagerly challenged George Bush's war policies. Indeed, with Obama beginning the arduous process of choosing his number two, Sebelius -- who, sources say, enjoys a warm relationship with Obama and would take the job -- presents a heap of electoral promise but with small but significant question marks.

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The daughter of the former governor of Ohio, Sebelius rose steadily in the political ranks, winning six straight elections before taking over the governor's chair in 2002 and being reelected four years later. A progressive Democrat in a predominantly Republican state, she achieved remarkable favorability ratings while holding positions traditionally anathema in Kansas -- mainly by keeping focus on bread-and-butter issues.

"By and large, she's a moderate Democrat, truly pro-business, and able to convey a legitimate sense of being a competent administrator (which she is)," Burdett Loomis, a former Sebelius aide and professor of politics at the University of Kansas, said in an email. "She does exceedingly well in forums like Chambers of Commerce talks, where she exudes common sense and competence, while still maintaining core Democratic values -- education, health care, and sympathy for unions."

More often than not, Sebelius has harnessed legislative consensus for her agenda. In a special session in 2005, she was handed a budgetary bombshell when the state's Supreme Court ordered the government to provide $500 million for school funding (Kansas' budget is roughly $12 billion). Discussions went on for days in the legislature, with talk of impeachment of the justices surfacing. Sebelius stood behind the court, and recruited a slim majority of lawmakers to her side. Funds were passed for the schools and three years later the program is regarded as a success.

"She brings people together and gets things done," said Raj Goyle, a first term state representative. "Governor Sebelius has a unique record of reaching across traditional party lines in Kansas to build consensus."

But when she felt it necessary, Sebelius fought -- and often won. She vetoed a bill that would have required voters to show photo identification before voting, citing disenfranchisement concerns. She issued an executive order making it illegal to discriminate against state employees on the basis of sexual orientation. Three times in four years, she opposed legislation that would have restricted abortion access even though one of those bills passed the Kansas legislature by a two to one margin. Most recently, Sebelius offered a third veto to a bill that would have paved the way for the construction of two new coal-fired units in western Kansas, and she did it primarily on environmental grounds, a stance that a decade ago would have amounted to political suicide.

"Elected leaders are supposed to look at the big picture, at issues that may not affect citizens immediately but are extremely beneficial to the long-term condition of our society. Moving toward renewable energy provides opportunities for better-paying jobs, while helping to address concerns caused by global warming," she said of her decision.

Her position was held up by one vote in the statehouse.

"The coal industry thought that if there was one state it could buy off, it would be Kansas," said one legislator close to Sebelius. "She obviously made an incredibly risky decision to deny the permits. And never before in history had coal plant been rejected on environmental grounds."

And yet, despite the dug-in heels and the close-fought battles, Sebelius' standing has risen. In 2005, she was named by Time magazine one of the five best governors in America, lauded for eliminating a $1.1 billion debt without raising taxes. Her approval ratings, meanwhile, hover over 60 percent. Officials at the Democratic Governors Association -- which Sebelius chaired in 2007 -- repeatedly raved about her work ethic.

The Bush confrontation was emblematic of how Sebelius has curried broad support. After tornadoes hit six southwest Kansas counties, killing thirteen, Sebelius publicly declared that National Guard shortages "will just make it [recovery] that much slower." The White House responded by first putting the blame at her feet, saying it was "not aware of any prior complaints" about a lack of personnel or equipment, and then suggesting that the governor had been in New Orleans, listening to jazz, when the storm hit. Neither were true. Sebelius had made at least five separate requests for equipment, beginning in Dec. 2005, and, on the day of the storm, she had been visiting family before immediately returning to the state.

According to a source close to Sebelius, the governor didn't take lightly to the smears. During a visit to the tornado site with the president, she reportedly continued to hammer away with her guard complaints. Kansans of all political stripes loved it.

"People were supportive of her and those comments," said Tim Owens, a Republican legislator. "I'm a retired army colonel and I will tell you, I think she is right... I'm not very happy about the way the federal government went about dealing with the National Guard in regards to the war in Iraq."

* * *

Being a successful Democrat in a Republican state, showing an ability to reach blue-collar voters, and demonstrating a tenacity to challenge the Bush administration, has vaulted Sebelius into any honest discussion of Obama's veepstakes. Sharing a good relationship with the Illinois Democrat and endorsing him fairly early in the primary cycle didn't hurt either. But Sebelius also has blind spots on her political resume that even her most ardent supporters acknowledge.

The most superficial is her State of the Union response, a speech that detractors say is evidence that she can't handle the national stage, but, her office claims, was merely a product of divergent expectations.

"Governor Sebelius believes there is a time and place for everything, but she saw that time as an opportunity not to focus necessarily on the Democratic message or the Republican message, but the American message," said her press secretary Nicole Corcoran. "Governor Sebelius has tangled with the White House before and will again if needed, but the response to the State of the Union message was not the time for it."

A far more substantive concern with Sebelius could be that she doesn't provide what Obama truly needs. As governor, she has had limited direct national security experience. And a recent Survey USA poll showed that, even with her as vice president, Obama still wouldn't carry Kansas (and its six electoral college votes) in the general election.

"She can't deliver her own state," said Christian Morgan, executive director for the Kansas Republican Party. "Moreover, she has never dealt with the national issues that a vice president has to talk about. She has no idea how military budgets work, or what it is like to be a commander in chief."

Because of these concerns, Loomis, who worked in a communications capacity for Sebelius, put the governor's vice presidential prospects at "no better than one in ten," calling her a conservative choice. But he added, should she be tapped, Sebelius would be a tireless campaigner and could very well translate her appeal in Kansas onto the national stage.

"As someone who has watched lots of politicians closely for almost four decades," he said, "I find there are two types -- the ones that look worse when you see them close up, and the ones that look better. Kathleen Sebelius is definitely the latter."


For more on Obama's veepstakes, check out HuffPost's rundown list of potential vice president candidates.

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