So far Barack Obama’s apparent Cabinet choices give little evidence that his pledge to change the face of Washington is anything more than that — just a promise. With a few exceptions those reportedly chosen all have been here before from the White House to Congress.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Jimmy Carter ran into trouble when he tried to keep the faith with a presidential campaign that was anti-Washington and became increasingly isolated from the institutions that actually run this community, including Congress. It is better to rely on those who understand the nuts and bolts of this complex society and count on them to get results from the fresh ideas that you propose.
In essence that is the theme, so far at least, of Obama’s selection process. His choices for the five main Cabinet posts and top White House jobs rely heavily on Clinton administration retreads. But they do include two relatively new to Washington. Timothy Geithner, for Treasury secretary, is well known to the financial world as reflected in the stock market’s upswing at the announcement of his pending appointment. The White House economic adviser will be former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, a veteran counsel at a difficult time.
What Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano lacks in Washington experience is made up for by the administrative skill and border knowledge she brings to the sprawling Department of Homeland Security.
Hillary Clinton of course is not only a powerful Washington insider she is among the world’s best-known political figures. Her reported pending appointment to run the State Department has generated some controversy because of her husband’s overseas activities, but her qualifications are unchallenged.
As head of the National Security Council, retired Marine Gen. James Jones also is a Washington veteran well regarded as having advised Congress on Iraq and Afghanistan.
Both Geithner and Clinton are strong choices. The same can be said about Obama’s apparent selection of Eric Holder, another Capitol insider, as attorney general even though the former deputy AG under Bill Clinton may have a confirmation issue because of his role in the pardoning of fugitive billionaire financier Marc Rich during the last minutes of Clinton’s administration.
Still to come is an announcement on the Defense Department. There has been speculation that Obama will keep at least for the time being the highly regarded current Defense secretary, Robert Gates. Retaining Gates would validate his pledge to reach across party lines to appoint good people.
Then there’s the case of Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, who made an abortive run at the presidential nomination and then quickly endorsed Obama despite his close ties to the Clintons and an appeal from his former boss, Bill Clinton, to at least stay neutral in the primaries. After all, the Hispanic former congressman had held two important posts in Clinton’s administration, including U.N. ambassador. He wanted very much to be chosen for the State Department post but was rewarded for his opportunism with the far less influential, less visible job of Commerce secretary, prompting one wag to comment that when it comes to engendering trust, "what goes around comes around." He probably would do better remaining governor.
Former Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle of South Dakota apparently will run the Department of Health and Human Services, another second tier department. The personable former lawmaker reportedly expected more. He was an early supporter of the president elect.
The reliance on former Clinton appointees both in the Cabinet and in the White House is not unusual. Each new president starts out with some remnants of the past. The small pool of experts whose experience is important to getting Obama off to a quick start is necessarily heavily loaded with those who learned their craft during the eight years of Clinton’s presidency. But the trick is to pick those who most reflect the new president’s policies and energies and not just reward political loyalty. Otherwise Obama’s promise to bring fresh faces and new ideas to a country that seriously needs them will be undercut.
(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)aol.com.)