November 13, 2008 – Those searching for tea leaves about Barack Obama’s favored picks for his Cabinet should look no further than the president-elect’s Veterans’ Day photo op. Joining Obama at a wreath-laying ceremony in Chicago was Tammy Duckworth, a former National Guard helicopter pilot who lost both legs in combat in Iraq and now directs the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.
Duckworth, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2006, has surfaced as the leading contender for secretary of Obama’s Department of Veterans Affairs, several veterans advocates said. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Rahm Emanuel recruited her for the ’06 race for Henry Hyde’s seat and Obama did an ad for her. She lost to Peter Roskam.
“Tammy is an incredibly inspiring leader and she has the potential to be our generation’s Max Cleland,” said Paul Rieckhoff, director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “She’s been innovative, empathetic, intelligent, aggressive and forward-looking.”
Cleland, a former Democratic senator from Georgia and decorated Vietnam War hero who lost three limbs in combat, headed Veterans Affairs under President Carter, and some say he is in the mix to return there under Obama. Another contender is said to be Arnold Fisher, head of Fisher House Foundation, a leading veterans’ charity.
But veterans advocates say Duckworth’s diverse background — she was born in Bangkok in 1968 and raised in Hawaii — and advocacy on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans makes her a compelling choice. The group Disabled Veterans of America is singing her praises, as is Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Duckworth has not been shy about her interest in the job, telling CNN this week: “When my commander in chief calls, I’ve always run for my helicopter and executed the mission I was given. And I would be deeply honored if President-elect Obama were to call.”
Another option for Duckworth could be succeeding Obama in the Senate; she is among the leading contenders for the post, which Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich will fill after Obama steps down.
A dark horse candidate to head the V.A. is the incumbent secretary, James Peake, appointed by Bush in 2007. A Peake aide, speaking only on the condition of anonymity, said her boss “has not yet made any plans, and his focus is on the transition.”