Mr. Obama’s cabinet

Hillary Clinton by Nrbelex via flickr

Hillary Clinton by Nrbelex via flickr

Filed Dec. 10 2008

WASHINGTON—In one of the early Democratic presidential debates, just before his surprising Iowa caucus win, Barack Obama delivered one of the night’s best one-liners. The debate moderator asked him how he could square his message of change with the fact that he had so many alumni of Bill Clinton’s administration advising him. At that point, Sen. Hillary Clinton was the clear front-runner. Standing at the opposite end of a long panel of contenders, Mrs. Clinton greeted the perceived “gotcha” question with a delighted cackle, saying, “I wanna hear that!”

Mr. Obama smiled.

“Well, Hillary, I’m looking forward to you advising me as well,” he said to audience cheers and applause. “I wanna gather up talent from everywhere.”

Ten months later, Mr. Obama is sticking to his plan. The President-elect has tapped a bevy of Clintonites—including the former First Lady herself—to form his inner cabinet and run the country. So far, it looks as if Mr. Obama’s dream team will be diverse, experienced, pragmatic and mostly Democratic. Whether it can bring about the change Mr. Obama promised remains to be seen.

Secretary of State—Hillary Clinton

To the surprise and trepidation of many, Mr. Obama is set to nominate his former nemesis to his Cabinet’s most prestigious and high-profile post. Reactions to the news have been mixed.

Those in favor see the move as a bold emulation of Abraham Lincoln’s “Team of Rivals” approach to governance—a way to avoid groupthink and to keep a potential agitator “in the tent.” They insist that despite more cynical assessments Mrs. Clinton is ultimately a “team player” whose shrewdness and popularity on the world stage will make her an effective diplomat.

Those opposed to the notion of Secretary Clinton fear that her and Bill Clinton’s return to the international stage might spur unwelcome drama and overwhelm Mr. Obama’s world image as a face of change. Some question Mrs. Clinton’s executive prowess. Though she has proven herself a talented legislator, her two major leadership endeavors—her attempt at healthcare reform in the 1990s and her poorly-managed presidential campaign—were both spectacular failures.

Treasury Secretary—Timothy Geithner

When news leaked that Mr. Obama would choose Timothy Geithner, president of the New York Federal Reserve, as his Treasury Secretary, the markets shot up nearly seven percent. But if Mr. Geithner’s popularity on Wall Street reassures some, it worries others. On the one hand, his role in the titanic financial bailouts of recent months—not to mention the fateful non-bailout of Lehman Brothers—gives him an intimate understanding of the crisis, and ensures a relatively smooth takeover. On the other hand, those decisions were not uncontroversial, and his stake in them could make him less open to shifting gears if necessary. Still, most agree that Mr. Geithner is a pragmatist—a career public servant who has never worked for a Wall Street firm and brings neither ideological nor professional baggage to the task.

Attorney General—Eric Holder

Eric Holder has his work cut out for him. As the first African-American Attorney General, Mr. Holder will be charged with restoring a Justice Department mired by partisan firings, domestic spying programs and support for torture. Mr. Holder is a bona fide “Washington Insider,” having served as a District of Columbia judge and prosecutor and as deputy Attorney General under President Clinton. Skeptics of Mr. Holder’s likelihood to turn the page on a politicized Justice Department point to his failure to vet some of Mr. Clinton’s most controversial pardons. But the real question is whether he will take his Bush-era predecessors to task, or let bygones be bygones.

Homeland Security—Janet Napolitano

In another Obama first, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano will be the first woman to serve as Security of Homeland Security—though the post was only established after the September 11, 2001 attacks. A former prosecutor and Arizona Attorney General, Mrs. Napolitano was a key female surrogate for Mr. Obama during his campaigns against Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Mrs. Napolitano is considered a moderate on immigration issues; she imposed strict penalties on companies in her state that hire illegal immigrants, but favours leniency toward immigrants themselves. She came on the scene in 1991 as a representative of Anita Hill, the law professor who brought sexual harassment to the nation’s attention.

Secretary of Commerce—Bill Richardson

Bill Richardson may be the most disappointed member of the Obama cabinet (except for Hillary, that is). Labeled “Judas” by the Clinton camp for endorsing Mr. Obama during the primaries, the Arizona Governor had his eyes set on the State Department. Mr. Richardson served as ambassador to the United Nation and Energy Secretary during the Clinton years and was the country’s first Hispanic presidential candidate, helping deliver the Latino vote for Mr. Obama in the general election. Once a champion of free trade, Mr. Richardson criticized NAFTA in recent years but is unlikely to push for its repeal.

National Security Advisor—James Jones

A close friend of Sen. John McCain and former NATO commander, retired Marine general James Jones is the sort of strong-minded and non-partisan talent Mr. Obama promised to recruit. He was an outspoken critic of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy, but Mr. Jones is no dove, supporting a surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. As the top foreign policy advisor in the White House, Mr. Jones will work closely with the State Department, making his close relationship with Mrs. Clinton an important asset.

Tom Daschle—Secretary of Health and Human Services

The soft-spoken former Democratic Senate leader will bring 26 years of Congressional experience with him to the Obama camp. He’ll need it, as pushing through Mr. Obama’s ambitious healthcare reform won’t be easy, even with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Since losing his Senate seat in 2004, Mr. Daschle has worked for a lobbying firm advising companies on public policy issues including healthcare—a background at odds with Mr. Obama’s anti-lobbyist rhetoric. But Mr. Daschle’s Senate expertise and career-long emphasis on finding “common ground” with Republicans—a key Obama theme– make him a natural pick.

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