Friday, November 21, 2008

Obama Transition: Two Weeks

President-Elect Obama celebrated two weeks from the election this week (actually, he celebrated VP-E Joe Biden's birthday).

So, what's going on? What's the news? He's made the following appointments:

Secretary of State: Hillary Clinton.

After an agonizing week+ of rumors, hemming and hawing, with both sides giving themselves plenty of room to back out (for Clinton, it was rumors that she might decline the offer; for Obama, it was the intensive background check on Bill Clinton), today NBC News is reporting that after Thanksgiving this will be made official. This positions Clinton to run for President in 2012, if she so chooses. It also sets off a new battle in New York State over her empty Senate seat.

Secretary of Health and Human Services: Tom Daschle.

Another heavyweight from Democratic Party Past, Daschle's appointment has certainly put to rest any discussion of Howard Dean as HHS chair. The HHS position is more important than ever before, with this new healthcare mandate. In fact, the exposure might position him for either a 2012 run for Presidency, or a return to the Senate. At any rate, a political career which could have been ended years ago has been given a solid boost.

Secretary of Homeland Security: Janet Napolitano.

This one is a little further from being confirmed, but the scuttlebut seems to be very set on this. Governor of Arizona (a border state, the first Governor to call for the President to release some of her National Guard from Iraq to serve on the border), she was pegged to run for a seat in the Senate in 2010 against John McCain--and may have given him a strong run for his money. This may be a life-line for John McCain, pulling her out of that position of competition, or it may be a death-blow, if she returns from SecHS with even more good repute and political chops in 2010.

Attorney General: Eric Holder.

There is very little of interesting meat on this appointment, even if he is the first African-American attorney general (a fact that might have drawn more attention if not for the first African-American President). A member of the Clinton Team.

Chief of Staff: Rahm Emanuel.

Old news, but he's part of the theory I'm working up about Obama's selection process.

OMB Head: Peter Orszag.

Not an interesting position, but I am excited on a personal level by Orszag: a blogger (hooray for 21st Century transparency) and one of the first people to use poetry in a CBO budget, as part of a joke he shared with David Brooks during a public event. Otherwise, irrelevant.


What's Going On?

Barack Obama, like many Presidential hopefuls since Andrew Jackson, positioned himself as an outsider. He came promising "change." His transition website is called "change.gov." Why is he choosing a staff of almost exclusively beltway insiders?

Well, actually, I think that fits right in with his message of change, as much as I'm irritated by certain individual picks (Clinton, basically; Napolitano a bit; don't know how to feel about Daschle). See, when George W. Bush entered Washington back in the day, he was the outsider candidate, who would shake up beltway politics. And unlike Barack Obama, a lot more of his team were composed of his team from Texas.

So Obama is not picking "outsiders" for his transition cabinet. Because he doesn't think changing faces is what "change" is about. Obama came to change the policies of Washington; and to change its dysfunctional me-versus-you politics. But if he's going to change the policies of Washington, he's going to have to be effective. And that means people who know the levers, how to grease the wheels of Congress, how to make things run.

It remains to be seen whether his message will be diluted. But I don't think it will. Because he's the President now. He calls the shots.

The election was about "Change." These cabinet picks are about whether "we can believe in" that change. If Tom Daschle is the man to get a comprehensive health-care bill passed, then it doesn't matter what the political narrative is.

And there's also this Team of Rivals theory he's apparently married to. He believes that Iran should be talked to. Hilary Clinton is skeptical. Between the two of them will be a fiery debate as to what to do about Iran. The plan they come up with will be better for it.

Obama is not making things easy for himself. He's got an ambitious platform, and he's taking a bunch of determined, ambitious people on board with him to get it done.

We can't judge these choices now, I don't think. There will always be a rationale that makes these choices make perfect sense, and an opposite rationale as to why it will have been a huge failure. What matters is the results.

Stay tuned. The next four years will not fail to be interesting.

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