President-elect Barack Obama appears close to announcing his choices for Secretary of State, Treasury, and Defense — the Big Three of the Cabinet — as well as his national security advisor early next week.
The Treasury appointment, in particular, will be vital. The designee will begin working promptly with Democratic congressional leaders in shaping an auto-industry rescue and will work with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to assure coordination between the outgoing and incoming administrations during the present financial/economic crisis. It was thought a Treasury designee would be Obama's first; the delay in naming him had become worrisome. But now New York Federal Reserve President Tim Geithner is expected to be named for the Treasury appointment.
Past presidents have stumbled over some of their choices. President Kennedy made first-rate domestic cabinet appointments but erred in naming Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. They, along with national security advisors McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow, mired both the Kennedy and Johnson administrations in an unnecessary Vietnam War. President Carter guaranteed foreign-policy confusion by appointing Cyrus Vance as secretary of state and Zbigniew Brzezinski as national security advisor without knowing they differed in their world views and approaches to policy. Outgoing President George W. Bush launched an intervention in Iraq largely on the advice of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, and Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz. His national security advisor at the time, present Secretary of State Condaleeza Rice, was a weak bureacrat.
On the positive side, JFK's principal economic advisor, Walter Heller, adocated economic policies that kept Kennedy's promise to "get America moving" and President Clinton's eventual Treasury Secretary, Bob Rubin, steered him through two international financial crises and reduced the federal budget deficit to zero.
These key appointments do make a difference, sometimes enough to make a presidency successful or unsuccessful. So how is Obama doing?
To start with Geithner, the likely Treasury Secretary. He is a protege of former Harvard President Larry Summers, who served as Treasury Secretary at the end of the Clinton years, after Rubin's departure. Summers had until now been considered the frontrunner to serve again. Impolitic comments at Harvard got him crosswise with women's groups but it was thought unlikely that misstep would disqualify him for the vital Treasury job. Whether it did or did not, Geithner emerged Friday afternoon as the probable nominee.
Confirmation issues: Was Geithner, in his New York Fed role, too close to Wall Street recipients of federal bailout money? What are his views regarding the size and form of a Detroit rescue package? As a side issue, his prospective appointment means a new New York Fed president must be found, an important post.
There was confusion Friday about another prospective member of the economic-policy team. Leaks from the Obama transition had made it seem that Penny Pritzker of the wealthy Chicago Pritzker family was about to be designated as Commerce Secretary. She raised big money for Obama in his nomination campaign and stood on the stage with him last week at his economic-policy press conference. Yet Friday attention shifted to New Mexico Gov. (and former U.N. ambassador) Bill Richardson, who earlier had been considered a finalist for the Secretary of State position.
I doubt that Richardson would want the Commerce job, which is not in the first tier of cabinet appointments and mainly consists of cheerleading for White House economic policies in the business community. Richardson endorsed Obama in the nominating season, leading to angry recriminations against him by Sen. Hillary Clinton and former President Clinton. He had been Energy Secretary as well as U.N. ambassador in the Clinton administration.
Biggest speculation, going into the weekend, was whether Obama would designate Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, as seemed to be about to happen. Clinton's appointment had been touted as a smart political move by Obama, bringing him a high-visibility figure as secretary while, at the same time, removing Clinton as a possible near-term rival. (Many were quoting the old political dictum: "Bring your friends close and your enemies closer.") Both Obama and Clinton, in my judgment, would be better served by Clinton's continuing service in the Senate.
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