Beyond the obvious symbolism, however, Monday’s moves also offer some important evidence on the best-kept secret of the past two years: how will a President Obama actually govern in these troubled times?
The parlor game of who gets what job is largely over, save a few of the less prestigious cabinet gigs. Here is what today’s announcement – combined with the unveiling of his top White House staff and economic team – tell us about the 44th president as he prepares to take over.
• He is an intellectual, who is more impressed by academic and governing credentials than familiarity and loyalty.
New York Times columnist David Brooks nailed it recently when he called the emerging cabinet a “valedictocracy”: a team of the nation’s first-in-class Ivy League elites. He meant it as a compliment. He’s not alone: it’s hard to find Republicans who don’t express admiration (at least in private) for the emerging Obama team.
Of the 18 top appointments announced so far, 12 have degrees from Ivy League institutions, Stanford or MIT. Susan Rice was a Rhodes Scholar; Larry Summers was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard history and Greg Craig, the top White House lawyer, attended Exeter, Harvard, Cambridge and Yale.
Few of the early picks could be considered Obama loyalists. Hillary Rodham Clinton thought she would be banished to the outer reaches of Obama’s world. Now, she’s secretary of state. Robert Gates thought he was headed for retirement. Now, he will run war policy for anti-war Obama. The victor has proved to be anything but vindictive.
There could be a cost to having so many high achievers around the same table. Bush’s war Cabinet was also praised for its experience and gravitas, but wound up being a dysfunctional snake pit.
• He is willing to take big risks.
His economic and national-security teams are getting packed with huge personalities who see themselves as architects, not assembly-line workers. The potential for big clashes in tough times is high. But so is the potential for big results.
Hillary Clinton could be a fabulous world diplomat, considering her familiarity with leaders and global problems. She could also be a disaster if the Clinton family’s penchant for personal and political dramas distract the Obama presidency. Gates could be the perfect man to end the Iraq war: A Bush appointee with strong ties to the GOP establishment. Or he could clash with the new, outsized personalities around him. And don’t forget: Joe Biden is vice president and deference isn’t his specialty.
Ego management will also be a necessity on the economic team. Lawrence Summers, who will be the White House economic adviser, was so harshly critical of colleagues when he was Clinton’s Treasury secretary that the president himself once urged him to stay respectful of colleagues at a cabinet meeting, Democrats recalled. Tim Geithner, the new Treasury secretary, worked under Summers in the Clinton years. Now it’s Geithner who’ll be the public face of the economic team - and former colleagues are imagining a delicate dance between the headstrong mentor and his former protégé. .
• He is very focused on governing—and prefers persuasion to force.
Obama inherits what every president dreams of: a Congress controlled by his party and with strong majorities. Unlike Bush, he seems to genuinely care what they think.
Many Republicans resented the way Bush simply dismissed the power and input of Congress. He saw his victories as mandates to implement his agenda and was dismissive of naysayers in either party. Obama seems to making a differet calculation: Democrats can win big if they proceed with something resembling a parliamentary approach to governance.
Rahm Emanuel, the incoming chief of staff, specializes in legislative strategy. He has been knee-deep in economic discussions with Capitol Hill leaders for weeks – and his position of great power was comforting to Hill veterans. He has even met with Senate Republicans.
The choice of former Senator Majority Leader Tom Daschle as secretary of Health and Human Services sends a powerful signal that Obama wants health care to clear the highest hurdle -- the Senate. In fact, his team looks like a high-powered meeting on the Hill – Emanuel, Daschle, Biden and Pete Rouse, who was Obama’s chief of staff in the Senate and will be a senior adviser in the West Wing.
• He isn’t so disdainful of the “Washington insiders” after all
Much of the media focus has been on how Obama has surrounded himself with “rivals” or “moderates.” But from one perspective what’s most surprising about them is how unsurprising they are—they are a roster of the Democratic establishment.
It is clear now the “change” Obama will bring to Washington will center around his personal style and values, not the cast of characters by his side. In fact, it is easy to envision a President-elect Hillary Clinton making many of the same picks.
Obama has basically plucked the government-in-waiting that got its start under Bill Clinton, sharpened its thinking at think tanks such as the Center for American Progress and been involved in virtually every policy debate since.
Their bonds, for now, matter more than any minor differences of governing emphasis.
Indeed, many of the old Democratic fault lines matter less now that both wings of the party agree the government needs to spend more in the near-term to help the economy and that the military should have a carefully modulated exit strategy from Iraq.
Of course the Democrats’ intramural debates could get interesting again once the Obama team gets focused on specific questions: How much (on spending) and how fast (on Iraq)?
• He is willing to jettison campaign promises to suit the political landscape
Every president does it, but Obama is breaking (or at least bending) a stack of promises even before he takes office.
His staff has spread the word that he will not immediately push his plan to raise taxes on the rich by repealing the Bush tax cuts. Many Democrats predict he will hit the brakes on the movement to make it easier to force unionization of the workplace – a core demand of his most loyal supporters that could get a lower priority as he scrambles to head off a depression. And Obama has signaled that liberal dreams like the repeal of the military’s don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy on gays in the military will take a back seat to more practical elements of his agenda aimed at helping struggling middle-class families.
Remember his assault on lobbyists? That has quieted, too. He has put lobbyists in prime positions on transition teams – and shown little interest in really clamping down on their role in this town.
In part, his shifts show that he can read the election returns, and has advisers who are already thinking ahead to 2012. (His first domestic trip as president-elect will be on Tuesday to swing state Pennsylvania.) America isn’t a 50-50 nation in 2008. But a 53-46 nation – the final percentages for Obama and McCain on Election Day – means that the new president will stay focused on the political and ideological center. If he tries to move that center in a leftward direction, it will be in a slow and careful fashion.