Expertise Trumps Ideology in Obama's Early Picks
By Adriel Bettelheim, CQ Politics Staff, 11/24/08
After he waged a campaign built around a stirring message of change, many of President-elect Obama's supporters
expected him to begin stocking his administration with
passionate progressives bristling to challenge the status
quo. Conservatives anticipated something akin to the
second coming of the New Deal.
Neither scenario has materialized.
At the quarter point in the transition process, Obama has
surrounded himself with a cadre of seasoned political
operatives and Clinton administration veterans known
more for their expertise than ideology. Beltway savvy and
centrist policy chops have, so far, trumped partisanship.
Some of this is to be expected, as Obama's team shifts
from the frenetic pace of a presidential campaign to the
more deliberate realm of governing.
And remember that as a candidate, Obama portrayed
himself as a new breed of politician capable of
transcending traditional political fault lines.
But the selection of so many centrist insiders has
skeptics wondering whether the idealistic ex-community
organizer is capable of backing up his promises to shake
up Washington and promote a more activist government.
"When you look at him, you see a person who's very
cautious, who hasn't involved himself in a lot of big issues
in Congress but on the other hand, has a background
that's hard left. It's not clear whether he wants to be Tony
Blair or Juan Peron," said Myron Ebell, a policy analyst at
the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Of course, there's a lot of political real estate between
Blair, the former British prime minister, and Peron, the
socialist Argentinian leader.
Not Like 1993 The difficulty in pinning down the part of
the political spectrum from which Obama will govern
shows, experts say, that he is being careful not to repeat
the mistakes former President Bill Clinton made during his
By building his administration from the inside out and
focusing on filling key White House positions like the
chief-of-staff, counsel and his senior advisers, he will
have a brain trust that can help guide remaining
personnel decisions, alert him to potential conflicts and
even begin moving an agenda.
Parsing the Early Picks Political scientists who study
presidential transitions say the most obvious thing to be
gleaned from Obama's selections is that he prizes trust
and an individual's ability to deliver.
Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the tenacious Illinois
congressman and former Clinton administration political
director, combines an under-the-hood knowledge of
campaigns with experience shaping health and tax policy
on the Ways and Means Committee.
Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, tapped
to head the Deaprtment of Health and Human Services,
was an early supporter of Obama's who knows how to let
negotiations play themselves out, then stand pat until his
top priorities are addressed.
Obama's roster is populated with other such inside
players, many with Ivy League credentials and
impressive resumes like ex-Deputy Attorney General Eric
Holder (attorney general), former Clinton impeachment
lawyer Gregory Craig (White House counsel),
Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag
(budget director) and Obama's Senate staff director, Pete
Rouse (senior adviser).
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's rumored choice for
secretary of state, can hardly be lumped with the loyalists
but is a world figure and could be expected to be a tough
negotiator who could advance the new president's
interests with the global community.
Obama's supporters "voted for somebody they thought
was going to bring a different tone to Washington and
make use of people not in terms of their partisanship but
in terms of what they can bring to an issue, and he's set
out to do that," said Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the
White House Transition Project, an academic think tank
that assists the incoming president and his transition
Another trait on display is discipline.
Obama has been scrupulous about not dabbling in
policymaking before he is sworn in.
He avoided the G20 economic summit President Bush
organized in Washington the weekend of Nov. 14 and 15,
instead sending former Clinton Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright and ex-Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, to
gather input from world leaders.
The message was clear: Obama will make commitments
and offer input only when he's ready.
"He didn't get lured into a trap, even though the press and
some economists were saying he had to move fast and
get involved to address the serious problems," said
Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings
Institution and an adviser to former Presidents Gerald
R. Ford and Jimmy Carter. "What emerges from this is a
cool, disciplined person who spent just enough time in the
Senate to understand Washington and is surrounding
himself with experienced people who know how to get
The downside to this low-key approach is Obama will
have to tamp down the expectations of the myriad left-
leaning interest groups that supported him. Experts
predict he will acknowledge these groups' concerns by
issuing executive orders and directives on matters such
as union political activities while keeping his larger focus
on the economy and devising solutions that don't appear
to be tinged by politics.
"People are always going to think he'll do what they're
expecting him to do, and see the rightness of their
cause," Kumar said. "But he comes into a situation
everyone views as critical. He'll have to convince people
he can't handle everything and will have to put some
items on the side so he can deal with economy. Reagan
was able to do that. He came in during a period of high
unemployment and inflation and was able to tell the social
conservatives they'd have to wait."
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