In a move that came as no surprise to anyone inside the Beltway, President Obama today nominated Tom Wheeler to head the Federal Communications Commission. Wheeler, an ally and fundraiser for Obama, will succeed Obama law school buddy Julius Genachowski, who announced his departure last month.
The pending nomination was leaked on Tuesday by the The Wall Street Journal and confirmed later in the day by White House officials.
"The FCC sits at the center of a growing communications universe that is growing faster than you can tweet," said Obama, who called the FCC chairman's post "one of the toughest jobs in Washington."
The nomination gives current commissioner Mignon Clyburn the consolation prize as interim chairwoman. For a few months at least, Clyburn will be the first woman chair of the FCC.
Wheeler has been widely considered to be the top pick for weeks. A venture capitalist with Core Capital and a former lobbyist for both the cable and wireless industries, Wheeler comes well-prepared to lead an agency facing tough questions about the technological transformation of the communications and media businesses.
"If anybody is wondering about Tom's qualifications, he's the only member of both the cable and the wireless industries' hall of fame. He's the Bo Jackson of telecom," Obama said.
Wheeler was also politically qualified: He raised as much as $500,000 for Obama's re-election campaign.
Over the past few weeks, Wheeler picked up more and more support from outside groups, overshadowing a play by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and more than 30 other Senators to push for former Rockefeller aide, and now FCC commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel.
That doesn't mean the nomination won't be controversial. While Public Knowledge president and CEO Gigi Sohn praised Wheeler as "independent" and "proactive," Free Press president and CEO Craig Aaron expressed concern over whether Wheeler can overcome his lobbyist roots and "prove his critics wrong."
Addressing criticism that the president was going against his own edict in hiring lobbyists, press secretary Jay Carney positioned that part of Wheeler's career as far in the past. "He hasn't worked for the wireless industry in nearly a decade; three decades in the cable industry," Carney said during his daily briefing. "He's a promoter of consumers, innovation and competition. When he represented the wireless industry, he represented smaller companies," Carney said.
The Women's Media Center, which campaigned heavily for the president to pick the first woman FCC chair, was disappointed by the choice. "We regret that president Obama did not recognize the need for a woman leader in this important FCC chair slot, though there were a number of highly qualified women under consideration," said Jane Fonda, a WMC co-founder.
It could be several months before Wheeler holds his first monthly meeting at the FCC's headquarters at the Portals. One lobbyist estimated that three to four months may be "optimistic." Until the Wheeler nomination can be paired with a nominee to fill the GOP commissioner seat vacated by Robert McDowell, it is likely slow-going in the Senate.
"I'm going to thank the Senate now for what I'm sure will be a speedy confirmation process," Obama joked.
Both McDowell and FCC chairman Julius Genachowski announced their pending exits within days of each other last month.
Genachowski has been waiting for Obama to nominate his replacement so he can leave. Two weeks ago he accepted a position to join the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program as senior fellow.