Julius Genachowski said on CNBC on Friday that he had “no plans” to leave as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Despite this ritual demurral, telecom-industry insiders are busy speculating on his possible successor.
When President Obama was first elected in 2008, there was little doubt that Genachowski would lead the FCC: He was a veteran commission aide, a Harvard Law School classmate of Obama's, and a top bundler for the campaign. This time around, there’s little consensus on who might take over if Genachowski steps aside, as has been widely anticipated.
The administration is faced with a knotty problem if it wants to promote from within the FCC. If Genachowski leaves, Mignon Clyburn would be the senior Democrat on the commission. She has a powerful political patron in her father, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the assistant Democratic leader in the House. Her prospects for landing the top job are discounted by insiders who say that her low-key style might not be suited for the public demands of the job. Insiders who argue against the prospect of Clyburn’s elevation also say that Jessica Rosenworcel, a former top staffer for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is an unlikely choice for chairman. The optics of promoting a less senior white woman over the African-American Clyburn might prove problematic for the Obama administration.
Going outside the FCC for leadership seems a way to avoid this problem, and the problem of singling out the favorites of Rep. Clyburn and Sen. Rockefeller for disappointment.
Larry Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is a popular pick. His work managing the civilian side of the government’s wireless-spectrum holdings put him in a strong position to execute on the National Broadband Plan, which calls for new spectrum to be put in the hands of commercial users to build out a wireless broadband network. Spectrum is expected to be a key aspect of the FCC agenda during Obama’s second term.
After Strickling, there’s less consensus on an outside candidate. Former FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, who recently left his job as administrator of the Rural Utilities Service, is considered a possibility. Blair Levin, former chief of staff to Clinton-era FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, is another candidate. He was the architect of the National Broadband Plan, and he would be able to hit the ground running in terms of carrying out its priorities. However, he’s also seen as perhaps too liberal to pass muster with K Street. If Obama is looking for an insider, he could tap his longtime supporter and campaign donation bundler Tom Wheeler, who led the 2008 transition team that appointed Genachowski. Wheeler, who led trade associations in the cable and wireless telephone industries, is generally regarded as a deep thinker on telecom issues.
A woman has never led the FCC. If the Obama administration is interested in making history, but not interested in tapping an internal candidate, it has a deep bench of candidates. Karen Kornbluh occupied senior FCC posts during the Clinton administration and has advised Obama since his Senate days; more recently she served the Obama administration as ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development at the United Nations. Cathy Sandoval, a law professor and media lawyer, was another high-level Clinton-era FCC staffer who has been mentioned for the post, along with Susan Ness, an FCC commissioner under President Clinton, and Susan Crawford, a law professor, Bloomberg columnist, and former policy adviser to Obama.