WASHINGTON – America’s most famous television surgeon, Sanjay Gupta, is poised to take his black bag and microphone to the White House as President-elect Barack Obama’s choice for U.S. surgeon general.
A neurosurgeon who also is a correspondent for CNN and CBS, Gupta was chosen as much for his broadcasting skills as his medical resume, suggesting that the incoming administration values visible advisers who can drive a public message. He also has been offered a top post in the new White House Office of Health Reform, twin duties that could make him the highest-profile surgeon general in history.
A practicing physician and one of People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive,” Gupta met for more than two hours with Obama in Chicago on Nov. 25, according to two sources with knowledge of the talks. Gupta, 39, later spoke with several Obama advisers, including Tom Daschle, who will run the new White House policy office and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The globetrotting doctor has told Obama aides he wants the job, which involves overseeing the 6,000-member Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service. When reached Tuesday, Gupta did not deny that he plans to accept the offer but declined to comment.
Transition officials refused to speak on the record about his selection, but several Obama allies praised Gupta as the sort of highly visible, articulate physician who might restore the luster that the position of “the nation’s doctor” had in the person of Reagan appointee C. Everett Koop and some of his predecessors.
A representative of the Commissioned Corps, however, said Gupta will face a “credibility gap” because he has never served in the uniformed Public Health Service.
“I am unaware of any public health experience or qualifications he has to be the leader of the nation’s public health service,” said Gerard Farrell, executive director of the service’s Commissioned Officers Association. “This would be akin to appointing the Army chief of staff from the city council of Hoboken,” N.J.
If he is confirmed by the Senate, Gupta would provide the administration with a skilled television personality to help market what is planned to be a massive reorganization of the U.S. health system.
The Obama team already has initiated a public relations campaign aimed at mobilizing grass roots support for eventual health reform legislation. Last week, Daschle appeared at town-hall style meetings in Indiana and Washington to solicit public input. The sessions, captured on video and posted on the transition Web site, were two of more than 8,500 local gatherings held over the holidays.
The son of Indian parents, Gupta has always been drawn to policy-making. He was a White House fellow in the late 1990s, writing speeches and crafting policy for then-first lady Hillary Clinton. He is currently associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital, Atlanta’s busy downtown hospital.
Gupta hosts “House Call” on CNN, and in October aired a special report on presidential health called “Fit to Lead.” Once CNN became aware of the negotiations with Obama, the network said in a statement, Gupta was barred from reporting on health policy.