US president-elect Barack Obama has already broken one promise. On the night he was elected, he issued a declaration that rebounded off the statues in Grant Park, Chicago, and reverberated around the world: “Change has come to America,” he said.
Trouble is, it wasn’t true. We’re still waiting for change because Obama is not yet president. US President George W. Bush is still in the White House and will remain there for nearly 60 more days. The economy plunges ever deeper into crisis and yet Obama can do no more than stand and watch from afar, held back from the levers of power until Jan. 20. Bush, meanwhile, gives lame ducks a bad name, still armed with the full authority of his office yet unable or unwilling to act while the economic crisis deepens.
Obama defers to the notion that the US has “one president at a time.” Yet right now it seems to have no president at all, drifting and functionally leaderless at a time of dire need. The US constitution brims over with mechanisms of elegance and reason — but this three-month period of institutionalized limbo is not one of them.
That’s partly why Obama gave three conference in three days last week. It was a recognition that, in Bush’s absence, someone had to get a grip. His performance at the podium — calm and steady — will have done much to reassure Americans that the grownups will soon be in charge. Just so long as they can wait.
But press conferences are only the most overt way in which Obama has signalled his intentions. Just as revealing has been the slew of staff and Cabinet appointments since Nov. 4 — all of them shedding crucial light on the Obama presidency to be.
First, we know the new administration will break from the old by valuing expertise and experience — quite a contrast after eight years of cronyism. Remember, Bush named as his point man for national emergencies one Michael Brown, fresh from his post as the judges and stewards commissioner for the International Arabian Horses Association.
Obama’s early nominees, by contrast, each boast resumes either packed with long years of relevant service or luminous with academic prizes — or both. After Senator John McCain threatened the world with a putative vice-president who seemed to regard her own ignorance as a credential for high office, and after he granted Joe the Plumber the status of chief adviser on taxation policy, it’s a relief that the US will soon be run by people with qualifications to do the job.
Second, Obama is clearly determined to be no naive liberal, no wide-eyed neophyte who stumbles into town smiling at the locals even as they pick the wallet from his pocket and slip the watch off his wrist. He will not be former president Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton, who brought in pals from their home states as unschooled as they were in the wiles of Washington.
So while Clinton’s first chief of staff was an Arkansas buddy from his kindergarten days — and hopelessly out of his depth in the nation’s capital — Obama has turned to a man who has no fear of the DC shark tank, not least because he has some of the sharpest teeth. The notoriously hardball Representative Rahm Emanuel was Obama’s very first appointment, and with it the president-elect sent a clear message. That he does not want to be surrounded by people who are nice. He wants to be surrounded by people who are effective.
There is a deeper insight here too. Obama understands that servants need not be identical to their master, so long as they can implement his will. In Emanuel’s case, the contrast in personality is useful: he can be bad cop to Obama’s good cop. More widely, the incoming president is betting that he can still cast himself as the new broom come to sweep out the Augean stables, even when he’s surrounded by a team of Washington insiders. So he has turned to the former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, a Capitol Hill fixture, to reform healthcare. He wants someone who cannot be tripped up by the time-honored, reform-thwarting tactics that are a way of life in Congress, someone who knows exactly how the machine works.
The lesson of Carter, and especially Clinton — who tried to overhaul healthcare and failed dismally — is that the untainted outsider is a useful persona for an election campaign: it’s not a qualification for a role in government.
This approach has, predictably, disappointed many of the Obama true believers on the liberal left. They are enraged by the proliferation of ex-Clintonites in the incoming administration, whether former treasury secretary Larry Summers as economic adviser in the White House — perhaps a holding position until the chairmanship of the Federal Reserve becomes vacant — or, most visibly, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton herself as secretary of state, an appointment expected to come after the Thanksgiving holiday. Why, they ask, did we go to all that effort to elect Obama, if we end up with the same old Clinton crowd? That’s not change we can believe in.
But this concern probably rests on a misreading of the way Obama sees his Cabinet and circle of advisers.
His longtime strategist David Axelrod gave the clearest clue at the weekend, when he said: “He’s not looking for people to give him a vision. He’s going to put together an administration of people who can effectuate his vision.”
In other words, he’s not hiring Daschle or Summers or Clinton for their ideological color. He’s hiring them as political professionals who will take a brief — ultimately authored by him — and get the job done.
Perhaps that is a gamble on Obama’s part, to imagine he can construct a progressive administration staffed by those in the center and even on the center-right. (Note that his expected national security adviser, the former marine General James Jones, backed McCain, while Hillary supported the Iraq war.) But that is the bet he is making.
The traditional reading of this would be as a sign of weakness, suggesting Obama feels compelled to keep right-leaning opinion on board. But it could just as easily be read as evidence of tremendous confidence: that he is sure enough in his own convictions to be surrounded by those who are far from nodding yes men.
Bush could not tolerate any such dissent, once telling a luckless economics adviser that any decision the president made was, by definition, good policy. Obama has always invited argument, encouraging his aides to present different views. This must partly explain why he is so drawn to the precedent of Abraham Lincoln and his “team of rivals.”
My own worries are, first, that at least one of Lincoln’s biographers has written that the team ended up “scheming and squabbling among themselves.”
Second, more recent history suggests that secretaries of state, in particular, are only effective if world leaders believe there is no daylight between them and the president. Think Henry Kissinger and former president Richard Nixon, James Baker and Bush Sr. Surely few will believe that of Obama and Hillary. Yet one senior Democrat tells me that this was a point explicitly discussed and agreed by the two former opponents last week, and that Hillary has won all that she asked for on that score — including “constant and immediate access” to Obama.
The Hillary nomination is the one that gives me pause. But the other signs are encouraging. The only real criticism of Obama’s presidency? That it hasn’t started yet.
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