The All-Star Possibilities And Perils

The latest fad in explaining Barack Obama's All-Stars is that suddenly the president-elect has morphed into something we never expected: a centrist. After all, the theory goes, why else would he reappoint George W. Bush's defense secretary? Or why would he make John McCain's pal Gen. James Jones his national security adviser? And then there's the choice of his primo nemesis, Hillary Clinton, for secretary of state--a woman who supported the invasion of Iraq at the outset. All this from a man who first ran as an antiwar candidate.

So the lefties worry he has run to the center. The centrists rejoice. And the Republicans scratch their heads, finding little to castigate. McCain might even have appointed some of these people himself.

Imagine that.

Truth is, Obama has not become a centrist. One adviser who knows him well says that "deep down, inside his gut, he has more liberal instincts." But here's the key: He's smart. He likes to surround himself with smart people. And he likes to hear what they have to say. "He doesn't mind having people who disagree with him around the table. In fact, he likes it," says one Obama ally. He is a scholar and professor by training. Granted, says another adviser, "he does a little of the arrogant thing" when there's disagreement. "But he really listens to you when you disagree. And I mean really listens."

Imagine that.

But there is more here. The man who ran as the candidate of change has found virtue in continuity. Not because he has suddenly decided to abandon all principle, but because he wants his transition to be reassuring, not anxiety provoking. So, yes, he will withdraw troops from Iraq and close Guantánamo as promised--but with Robert Gates and Jones at his side. So, yes, he will propose a large stimulus package with middle-class tax cuts as promised--but with the former president of the New York Fed, Tim Geithner, as treasury secretary, assisted by Larry Summers, who once held that same job. Obama's core beliefs have not shifted; he just understands there is very little margin for error for this presidency--in these times, when the public expects so much.

Imagine that.

The devoted left will argue that these pragmatists are a yawn, not worthy of a change agent like Obama. How can he appoint all of these a) former Clintonites (including Summers and Clinton) or b) old Washington hands or c) people who have worked for Republicans or who are--brace yourself--Republicans? Isn't this more of the same? If you think it is, consider these questions: When was the last time a cabinet had so many top-flight people regardless of political labels? When was the last time we had a president self-assured enough to welcome dissent? When was the last time we had an incoming president with these kinds of problems--two wars and an economic crisis--on his plate? The real change here is that ideological devotion is out; governing and problem-solving are in.

Imagine that.

Worldviews. Sure, this is a team of egos. But it is also a team of achievers. If elections are about what came before, then this group is a reaction to the recent past--an evolution from the Bush appointees, governed by loyalty to ideology. Sure, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were heavy hitters, too, surrounding a green president. But in the end, they were out to prove the correctness of their own worldviews: Wasn't it Rumsfeld's dedication to downsizing the military that led to a now widely acknowledged inadequate troop strength at the outset of the Iraq war? Indeed, those ideologues who called themselves either neoconservatives or conservatives--and who battled famously for President Bush's ear (talk about a real Team of Rivals)--are headed back to their think tanks to retool.

Imagine that.

There is, of course, peril in this new collection of brainpower, experience, and ego. Obama's complete confidence in his own ability tomanage large and competing personalities may be a tad, er, overdone. We don't know how decisive Obama is or how he will manage these giants. What happens, for instance, when General Jones guards the door to the Oval Office because that's his job and Hillary Clinton marches in, having been given assurances that she can? Talk about chain of command. And the real test will come when the new president has to outline that "vision" for the world he often speaks about--beyond the ad hoc recommendations from his pragmatic crew and the generic Democratic call for multilateralism and diplomacy. In a way, Obama's extreme cabinet intensifies the pressure on the man in charge to perform and achieve.

Imagine that.


By Gloria Borger
  • CBSNews

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