In Obama, particularly during the critical last six weeks of the campaign after Lehman Brothers collapsed, many Americans saw in him someone they felt they could trust to get the big things right, regardless of his age or experience. They knew they needed new management after eight years of cronyism and ineptitude. Too many things were going wrong and it was time to get someone in there who was willing to learn and think about solutions to problems. Obama talked about hope and change, but he knew that to get over the top (and crucially win independents) he had to demonstrate competence and command, which he did. He didn’t need to move to the center on policy because the political landscape was shifting in his direction. To win the center he needed to show he could do the job.
And that thinking continues to guide his decisions in building his administration. With the exception of Hillary Clinton (and maybe a bit around Rahm Emanuel), his picks for high office have largely lacked controversy or drama. Big personalities yes. But people who are widely seen as highly able and ready to do the job (and this of course includes Hillary), regardless of whether they were loyal or close to Mr. Obama. That represents a big change of philosophy from what we have seen recently – from both Bill Clinton (whose transition was a basket case) to W. And it is another sign of Mr. Obama’s innate prudence, maturity and confidence.
There will of course remain questions about whether Obama can corral the big beasts he has brought into his administration to stampede in the same direction. But, if there is an indication about how he might do that, it comes from the way he has presented his selections. And the important word to note is four letterered – T-E-A-M.
Obama has offered his nominees as part of teams to grapple with the big challenges of the economy and national security. It suggests he wants these people working closely together, across the bureaucracies they will administer, to join up policy thinking and implementation, because the complexities of today’s world demand it. So for instance, Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton will need to end turf wars between the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom over who leads nation-building efforts and create joined up teams of experts to address security, institutional and economic development issues in failed states. And in Obama’s White House, big players like retired Marine Commandant Jim Jones and former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers will be there to lasso the steers and provide some critical challenge to their colleagues in the departmental hinterlands.
I’d expect Obama to offer similar models around the environment – bringing together Energy, EPA, Interior and maybe Agriculture as well around a coordinated White House policy apparatus (maybe with a Climate czar serving as the environmental cowboy). Housing and Urban Development and Transportation could likewise be paired, with Obama’s proposed White House Office for Urban Policy bringing those machines into sink to address sustainability and the regional dynamic of economic policy.
Obama is an astute student of political history. His model for how to organize his government is the Reagan Administration – with a strong White House directing policy and competent and skilled managers delivering it. If there is anything I’d like to see so far that I haven’t yet, it is an indication of how Obama and his team will nurture the next generation of progressive leadership.
It is right that Obama brings in tested talent and experienced leaders to address the massive problems we face today. But, new leaders will be needed down the line. Obama inspired a new generation of voters to get involved in politics. Now, he needs to inspire and offer that generation opportunities to get involved in governance. And while newcomers from varied backgrounds can’t expect the top jobs at present, they should expect places down the chain, so they can learn and grow and be ready to step into leadership when the time comes.
The best way to retain a progressive majority for the future is to make government work again. Obama gets that, as choices for his team show. His short-term challenge was to bring together a talented and experienced team to address the problems we face now. Over the long-term, lasting change will require attracting new talent (including folks without long Washington resumes) to government and giving them the opportunity to learn from the best. My sense is Obama gets that too.