Sat, Nov 29, 2008 - Page 9 News List

What does Team Obama say about the man himself?

TOUGH, UNSENTIMENTAL, NO NAIVE LIBERALthe next US president has picked people to carry out his vision. But will Hillary play ball?

By Jonathan Freedland  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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.

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