Obama walking into political minefield as he taps new FCC chairman

President Obama is walking into a political minefield as he decides whom to nominate for chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Industry groups, consumer advocates and Democrats are splintering over the contenders, putting Obama in a bind as he narrows his short list for the powerful post.

“You’re going to offend a whole lot of people no matter which way you go,” one communications industry source said.

Obama is looking to replace Julius Genachowski, who is leaving the chairman’s post after a controversial tenure that included the creation of new rules for Internet providers.

{mosads}It’s an important choice for Obama, as the next chairman will face difficult decisions over how to provide enough airwaves for mobile devices, preserve the openness of the Internet and promote competition.

Tom Wheeler, a venture capitalist and fundraiser for Obama, was considered the clear favorite for the job just last week. But then a coalition of public interest groups sent a letter to the president bashing him, and 37 senators signed a letter supporting an alternative pick: FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

“Wheeler is still the front runner, but it isn’t as secure as it was a week or two ago,” another industry watcher said.

Wheeler was the president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the lobbying organization for the cable industry, from 1979 to 1984. Later, he led CTIA, the lobbying arm for cellphone carriers.

He was an early supporter of Obama’s first presidential bid and led the working group in charge of science, technology and the arts for Obama’s presidential transition team.

Opposition to Wheeler is coming from several groups. The New America Foundation, Free Press, Demand Progress and others warned Obama that Wheeler would be too close to the industries he would be in charge of regulating.

“You can’t have an objective chairman of the FCC that’s got 20 years of their life invested in being the head lobbyist for industry,” Sascha Meinrath of the New America Foundation said in an interview.

“If they nominate someone like Wheeler, they should anticipate there will be a substantial backlash from the public interest community,” he warned.

But the public interest advocates are not united in their opposition to Wheeler. The prominent group Public Knowledge, for example, did not sign the letter.

Supporters of Wheeler emphasize that it’s been years since he was a lobbyist and that at the time, the cable and cellphone industries were upstarts rather than the established giants they are now. They note that last year, Wheeler was a member of a presidential advisory council that recommended sharing broad swathes of wireless frequencies between government and commercial groups — a plan that irked the cellphone industry.

His supporters also argue that because he is richer and older than other candidates, he wouldn’t be beholden to any industry for a cushy job after the FCC.

But Meinrath of the New America Foundation argued that Wheeler’s public statements during his career as a lobbyist indicate that he would be bad for competition, innovation and consumers as head of the FCC.

Another blow to Wheeler’s candidacy came when 37 Senate Democrats, led by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), signed a letter supporting Rosenworcel for chairwoman.

If selected, she would be the first woman to lead the agency.

Before Rosenworcel was confirmed as an FCC commissioner last year, she served as Rockefeller’s top communications policy aide. Before that, she was an adviser at the FCC and worked in private practice.

Rosenworcel would not need Senate confirmation to ascend to the chairmanship, since she already serves on the commission. That could be appealing to Obama, who has faced GOP opposition to many of his second-term nominees.

“She is equally respected by industry, the public safety community, and public interest groups,” the senators wrote, concluding that she would be a “superb” choice.

But choosing Rosenworcel would skip over Mignon Clyburn, the senior Democratic commissioner and daughter of Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), a member of the House Democratic leadership. The move could be seen as a snub of Clyburn and anger her supporters, including her father and the African-American community.

But unlike other candidates for chairman, Clyburn doesn’t have a law degree or technical background, and critics question whether she is well versed enough in the issues to lead the FCC.

Other candidates include Karen Kornbluh, the former ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and Larry Strickling, who manages the government’s use of the airwaves as head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

Kornbluh served as a staffer in the FCC’s Media Bureau during the Clinton administration and was a domestic policy adviser to Obama when he was a senator. Strickling worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign, served at the FCC and was a lobbyist for Ameritech.

If Obama decides against Wheeler and chooses not to stir the political hornet’s nest by passing over Clyburn, the chairmanship could fall to Kornbluh or Strickling.

Meinrath said that Kornbluh and Strickling are candidates that “no one is all that excited for, but no one would lose too much sleep over.”

A dark horse candidate is Cathy Sandoval, a member of the California Public Utilities Commission. A Rhodes Scholar and law professor, she advised the FCC on issues affecting small and minority-owned businesses during the 1990s.

But picking Sandoval could anger Republicans and industry groups, who fear she would be an aggressive regulator and micromanage business decisions. Obama is unlikely to want to risk a lengthy confirmation battle over the FCC. 

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