Sunday, November 23, 2008

Team of teammates

Barack Obama’s post-Bush vision of American government is starting to take shape before post-Bush America even happens. Some fifty-eight days before he’s sworn into office, the 44th President of the United States is building a Cabinet and cadre of advisers that may well be running before they hit the ground.

Obama is reportedly set to name Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Fedeal Reserve Bank, to be the next Secretary of the Treasury. Highly regarded in financial circles, Geithner has worked under two previous treasury secretaries, been a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and helped to engineer the sale of Bear Stearns earlier this year.

Lawrence Summers, a former Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration, is reportedly set to be tapped to lead the National Economic Council, and is thought likely to succeed Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Federal Reserve in 2010.

Without meaning to, Bill Richardson may be burnishing his reputation as the Swiss Army knife of Democratic politics. The former United Nations ambassador, Secretary of Energy, Congressman and current governor of New Mexico is said to be in line for the post of Secretary of Commerce.

The fact that Richardson was or will be apparently offered Commerce after it was refused by Croesus-rich Chicago businesswoman Penny Pritzker may not sit well with Latino Americans, who may suspect (with some justification) that Richardson was the second choice for a Cabinet post with a relatively low public profile.

Robert Gates, the current Secretary of Defense, is expected to stay in that post in the short term, although the potential for popular blowback against Obama’s administration for holding over a Bush facilitator of the Iraq war may prompt a change sooner rather than later.

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And then there’s the big one we’ve been waiting for. Sen. Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former antagonist on the campaign trail, is said to have been offered and accepted the post of the next Secretary of State. This has been floated for several days now, accompanied by the various intrigues and deceptions that are common to the Clinton Way.

There's no question that Clinton would bring to that job a formidable intellect, a strong recognized brand, and a wide portfolio of world leaders she calls friends.

But we’ve been led to believe, via some well-timed leaks, that the devil is in the details — among them what access she’d have to the President, and who she can bring in for her staff. According to news reports, I’s are also still being dotted and T’s being crossed on matters concerning the business dealings of Hill’s hubby, former president Bill Clinton, and his Clinton Global Initiative, a charity has raised more than $500 million for a variety of causes, much of it through donors originating outside the United States.

But all the to-ing and fro-ing about her accepting the position, all the Clintonesque drama never really amounted to that much, if you think about it.

Think about it. Hillary Clinton was beaten, soundly and plainly, by a superior candidate for the Democratic nomination. Until the Obama proffer, she faced the prospect of her bifocal days in the United States Senate, just one of a hundred others, tail between the legs of her pantsuit in defeat, with a weaker leverage than she had before she pursued the presidency, outflanked and sidelined on health care —the issue that’s been her abiding passion for twenty years — and fated to be the lioness in political winter.

Who in hell’d want to go back to that?

She’s not ready to settle down, sitting on the porch in Chappaqua holding hands with Bill (or not). Becoming Secretary of State keeps her in play, on the top shelf and (sometimes) leading the news; it enables her to continue the sharklike forward motion necessary for political survival, and lets her ride the coattails of the broadest populist experience in American political history.

Never mind the drama and artificial suspense. The option of accepting the Secretary of State gig was the only real option Hillary Clinton had.

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All props are due to Doris Kearns Goodwin, the eminent historian, biographer and Red Sox fan whom we deeply admire (despite the Red Sox thing). Her 2005 book “Team of Rivals,” a study of President Lincoln’s efforts at building a bipartisan Cabinet of ambitious, disputatious advisers in the runup to a ruinous civil war, is being held up as possibly reflective of President-elect Obama’s own across-the-aisle style.

But the names now afloat in the 24/7 ether of today suggest that the antagonisms implicit in Goodwin’s title may not necessarily be in play in 2008. This is a very serious crew that Obama is building, a group that in the early going, at least, will have every reason to be less a team of rivals than a team of teammates.

Everybody’s watching on this one, and Team Obama knows it. This is one administration that understands going in how high the stakes are, that there’s near-zero public tolerance for machinations and stratagems and bullshit. The kind of thing that happens when an administration has too much time on its hands and not enough to do.

In ways we can’t really see just yet, the Obama administration should be well served by the very diversity of talents and viewpoints these names represent. There’s someone in that list of Cabinet probables to delight and piss off everyone. No doctrinaire conformity with expectation, no automatic racial affinities.

This is a Whitman’s Sampler of government, a box crowded with career thinkers and scholars and politicians. People who know their way around. People who, presumably anyway, know how to get things done when challenged by the demanding, superior intellect of the next President of the United States. People smart enough to submerge their outsize egos for the purpose of tackling, among other problems, the most precipitous financial crisis this country has seen in generations.

By even the most conservative (small “c”) assessments, Barack Obama won a mandate to govern on Nov. 4th; the speed with which he’s assembling a Cabinet and formulating a policy for addressing various national ills suggest a president who recognizes the gravity of what’s facing the country today. There’s every good reason to think Barack Obama will bring to the White House the same focus, the same energy and relentless sense of purpose that he brought to a transformational presidential campaign.

Such is the depth of the crisis, and the utter absence of governmental oversight by the nonentity known as George W. Bush, that in practical terms, Barack Obama and his circle have already effectively taken control of the American economy, and done so out of necessity.

With the help of a majority Democratic Congress and a broad acceptance by the American people, Team Obama is champin’ at the proverbial bit, ready to replace the slow, clueless, twenty-mule team of the Bush administration. The thoroughbreds about to start this dash to the future may be a skittish lot (especially the one at the State Department). Bet on the next president, the man with the whip hand, to take on the challenge of keeping them in line.
Image credits: Geithner: Public domain. Richardson: sskennel, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. Clinton: Bbsrock, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license. Team of Rivals cover: © 2005 Simon & Schuster. Whitman's Sampler: © 2008 Whitman's Candies, Inc. Barack Obama: Public domain.

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