The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, November 24, 2008

Team of Rivals, Unrivaled Team, and Shadows

Conservatives are noting with glee that some Obama voters are less than thrilled with the President-elect for his cabinet choices. Of course, it is usually unwise to paint or tar a group with too wide a brush. True, all Obama followers drank from the same Kool-Aid trough but it seems that, much like Gideon’s army, some of us cupped our hands to drink, while others lapped it up like dogs, and still others waited for it to be ladled into cups.

I list three forms of drinking either, as opposed to the historic two, because those criticizing Obama fall into two distinct subgroups. One subgroup find Obama guilty of being too radical while the other condemns him for not being radical enough. One worries that a Lincolnesque “team of rivals” does not fit the present economic crisis while the other frets not nearly enough competing voices are in the mix.

Looking in from the cold, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks generally likes what he sees so far. In last Friday’s column, he wryly writes, “Even more than past Administrations, this will be a valedictocracy – rule by those who graduate first in their high school classes.”

Brooks goes on to list what he likes about the Obama picks. He feels they are all open-minded individuals, admired professionals, not excessively partisan, and non-ideological.
Finally, he admires their “practical creativity,” by which he means they can see the big picture and know how to take the incremental steps necessary to achieve goals.

I suspect many Obama supporters, such as myself, agree with Brooks and see Obama’s choices as more than simply acceptable but also often thoughtful and shrewd.

For the mavens of maximum diversity, who envisioned a Cabinet consisting of Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Greens, and God knows what else, anything more than a single token GOPer was never going to happen.

James Oakes, a Professor of History at the CUNY Graduate Center and opponent of the Lincoln “team of rivals” meme championed by Doris Kearns Goodwin, points out that even Lincoln’s tolerance for dissent had its limits. His sometimes-contentious appointees were all fellow Republicans who had vied with him for their Party’s nomination. They may have disliked or had little respect for Lincoln personally, but they all shared the same basic ideology. Lincoln considered selecting a prominent Southerner but relented when he could literally find none who would endorse the Republican platform.

As a recent Washington Post editorial notes, “[Obama’s Cabinet] so far also is diverse and in the most gratifying way, which is to say, in a way that seems naturally occurring. No one can look at any of these selections and think that gender or race was the driving factor in the selection.”

For the anti-Hillarites who fear Clinton as too strong-willed and too different in worldview to support Obama’s foreign policy initiatives, the old maxim runs to hold your friends close and your adversaries closer. Moreover, once she let go of her own campaign, Clinton flawlessly demonstrated her loyalty to Party over self-interest by supporting Obama during the election. I see no reason to believe she will not continue to place country first while helping Obama govern.

For those who rue large number of Clinton-era personnel on Obama’s team, the chief concern Obama needs to address with Americans is his relative inexperience and where else can he reach for Democrats with practical Washington experience besides the Clinton Administration? The only other conceivable choice is Carter people from the late 1970s. Those staffers are getting a bit long in the tooth and advanced age was a chief concern many Americans had with McCain.

Finally, for those who disparage the selection of Rahm Emanuel for Chief of Staff as somebody too partisan and rancorous, it has never been the main responsibility of this position to win friends and influence others but rather to get things done. What is more, by naming him early, Obama avoided the mistake of some past President-elects, Bill Clinton, most recently, of concentrating on high-visibility Cabinet officers first and then filling crucial staff positions almost as an afterthought.

When I look at Obama’s choices to date, I see three common themes running through them that I find admirable and encouraging.

The first, as Brooks points out, is competence. Fellow New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof points out, “At least since Adlai Stevenson’s campaigns for the presidency in the 1950s, it’s been a disadvantage in American politics to seem too learned.” Yet while Obama’s intellect is obvious, he strikes a fine balance between perspicacity and pedantry. Global Language Monitor analyzed linguistics of the final Presidential debate and found Obama spoke at a ninth-grade level, while McCain spoke at a seventh-grade level.

Nobody doubts Clinton is bright enough to handle State or any other position but her long-standing interest in national healthcare makes her seem a more likely fit at Health and Human Services. Tom Daschle, who got that job, is a respected legislator but, despite having written a book on the subject since leaving office, is not the first name most people think about when it comes to health policy. Some consider Bill Richardson tailor-made for Clinton’s job at State; instead, he went to Commerce.

This might be the most brilliant aspect of Obama’s picks, in my opinion. Leave these talented and accomplished politicians in their respective comfort zones and Obama maximizes their chances of pontificating and refusing to cooperate with him or each other, much like Lincoln’s team of rivals. Putting them in unfamiliar waters forces them to use their formidable gifts to actually learn and do their jobs, as well as leaving them more open to Obama’s own thoughts in each area.

The second common theme I admire in Obama’s choices is their broad connections. Clinton may not have been a formal diplomat but she gained familiarity with many world leaders, not to mention with many key players behind the scenes, during her eight years as First Lady and six years as U.S. Senator. Even if Daschle had no healthcare background, he has broad bipartisan admiration from his many years in Congress necessary to translate policy into passable legislation.

Likewise, Obama’s Treasury Secretary will need to be able to coordinate closely with the Federal Reserve Board to pass an extensive financial stimulus package and do so quickly. Obama’s pick, Timothy Geithner, the retiring New York Fed chief, is in a good position to gain their support and cooperation.

The third common theme among Obama’s nominees is a sense of unfulfilled mission and this exists precisely because so many of them are former Clintonistas – and that includes Hillary Clinton herself.

We forget that Bill Clinton first swept into office in 1992 as a change candidate. Many in his Administration were optimistic about implementing a progressive agenda that would undo some of the themes of the Reagan revolution. Early missteps left Clinton fighting for his political life. To survive, he brought the Democratic Party to the middle instead of moving the country left. A hostile GOP Congress and personal peccadilloes prevented any further development of his progressive dreams during the next six years.

Many of these former Clinton staffers and aides, now ensconced in new roles, may see a chance at redemption by serving in an Obama Administration. This kind of fervor, if properly checked by reticence and wisdom, could be a powerful force for real change.

Much of the rhetorical racket over Obama’s picks reflecting his weakness and/or leaving his supporters in chaos and anger is more the product of what critics envision Obama’s base to be rather than what it really is. Yet whether his supporters see Obama’s Cabinet as a team of rivals (and whether or not they see this as a good thing) or an unrivaled team, all indications to date are that his shadow falls over his nominees more than any risk of them overshadowing him.

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