Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Obama's Ridiculously Strong Cabinet

It's safe to say that Obama is pulling out all the stops when it comes to assembling his Cabinet. On Monday Obama announced his national security team, which includes, among others, Bush's Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, and John McCain's former foreign policy advisor, James Jones, as Obama's National Security Advisor. Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano for Homeland Security, and, of course, New York Sen. and former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. He will also nominate New Mexico Gov. and former Presidential candidate Bill Richardson as Commmerce Secretary. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle will be Secretary of Health and Human Services. He recruited Rahm Emanuel, a rising Dem star in the House and who was well-known to have aspirations to be Speaker of the House, to serve as his Chief of Staff.

Choosing people from Bush's Cabinet and the McCain campaign demonstrates Obama's supreme confidence in his management abilities. He said when introducing Gates that "I will make policy" and "the buck stops with me," even though he has selected a man who very publicly disagreed with him on Iraq, the central issue which will be run by Gates' department in Obama's administration. Cabinet Secretaries, particularly those Obama has selected, are not politically powerless, and they tend to be protective of their power and influence. But Obama, choosing Gates, believes that he can keep Gates in line on this very important issue.

There are two reasons why I'm potentially thrilled about the selection of Gates, assuming Obama indeed will be able to set Pentagon policy, which I trust he will be. One is that Gates has already been running the Defense Department for years, so he figuratively (and, sadly, literally) knows where the bodies are buried. It's also fabulous that Gates, and Jones as well, will provide opposing viewpoints. One of the biggest factors that lead to the problems during the run-up to Iraq was that pretty much everyone around the President was a neocon who thought the war was a good idea. Wall Street is in such deep doggy-do because just about every financial CEO had an Ivy League MBA and thought CDO's were the bee's knees. When it comes to foreign policy, Obama will have within his own Cabinet viewpoints from men who disagree.

Having two former Democratic primary opponents in his Cabinet, as well as another as his VP, raises the risk of Secretaries looking after their own political interests before the Administration's. I don't think you'll find many people who would argue with Clinton and Richardson being the best-qualified Democrats to hold a Cabinet-level position, so there is also a significant benefit to these selections. It will be up to Obama's management skill, as well as his political muscle, to keep these two in line and put their massive qualifications to good use. Same goes for Emanuel, though it's pretty hard to score political points for yourself when you're Chief of Staff. Actually, I'm convinced Obama picked Emanuel only because in Hebrew "Rahm" and "Barack" translate to "thunder" and "lightning".

Selecting Napolitano also is not without negatives because, according to Arizona law, she will be replaced by the current Arizona Secretary of State, who is a Republican. It also robs the Democrats of a very strong chance to defeat John McCain in 2010 when he runs for another Senate term; Napolitano is the strongest Democrat in the slightly red state and the only Dem with a good chance of taking McCain's seat, so it's no coincidence that McCain spoke publicly and strongly in support of Napolitano's nomination. Just because they didn't get to 60 Senate seats this time doesn't mean they wouldn't have a chance next time around. Choosing Napolitano makes it significantly less likely. Clearly, Obama is aware of this implication of her nomination, so he must really think she's gonna be a great Homeland Security Secretary.

By assembling such a strong Cabinet, in name, stature, and diversity of opinion, Obama is raising expectations for his Administration. With such power in the Executive branch, as well as near-dominance of the Legislative, Obama is setting the table for a strong government. It'll be pretty much make-or-break time for the Democratic Party. They've got their all-star team in the Executive branch, so they have no excuses if they fail.

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