By now, Mike Leavitt should be familiar with the way things work in Washington. He also should understand clearly that some interest groups won't like what he does regardless of the merits. Even though he was the head of the Environmental Protection Agency for only a year, he had plenty of experiences to drive home that reality.
And that means he should do quite well as the new secretary of Health and Human Services.
Leavitt's appointment, announced Monday, moves him into one of the most prominent positions within the Bush Cabinet and right from the hot-seat of one high-profile job into the fire of another. If confirmed and we don't see any reason why that process won't go smoothly he will oversee Medicare and Medicaid. That means he will be the man in charge of fully implementing Medicare's prescription drug benefits program in 2006, with all its costs and shortcomings. In addition, he will be in charge of the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Indian Health Service. He also will control a budget of more than $500 billion.
By comparison, this makes his 11 years as governor of Utah seem like he was running a little mom-and-pop grocery.
No doubt, Leavitt is being rewarded for his loyalty. President Bush has shown that he would prefer his second-term Cabinet to consist of people who agree with him ideologically and in other ways. Leavitt has shown he fits that characterization. But he also has shown he has the mettle to survive the Washington meat-grinder, which is often unkind.
At the time he was tapped for this new post, Leavitt was preparing to unveil aggressive new EPA priorities for the next four years. Already, environmentalists were accusing him of wanting to roll back important protections and cave in to businesses and industries that want to put profits ahead of the planet's health.
The accusations are unfair. Leavitt's record at the EPA was admirable. He instituted emissions restrictions on mercury and imposed new standards on PM2.5 pollutants. He resolved to strictly enforce new ozone standards. He worked in several states and regions to forge agreements with leaders of all political persuasions to solve ongoing problems carrying on his own brand of coalition-building, which he termed "enlibra" during his years as governor.
There is a place for "enlibra" in Health and Human Services, as well. Leavitt will never please all sides in the special-interest war. The sides are too entrenched and well-funded for that. But he has shown himself capable of getting positive things done.
Even as governor of Utah, Leavitt showed he has a passion for solving problems on a grand scale a passion he honed as head of the National Governor's Association. Now he gets a chance to leave a big mark. His successes, and his newest appointment, are a credit both to himself and the state of Utah, which helped produce him.
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