We are getting to know President Barack Obama, day by day. A quick bottom line: He is a serious and good man but no superman Messiah. It is good that we should come early to that recognition and set our expectations accordingly.
His strengths are the ones he displayed from the moment he declared his presidential candidacy: Facility with words and speechmaking, an instinct toward moderation and pragmatism, high intelligence, and a sense of cool. His vulnerabilities (which have become more apparent in his first weeks of actual governance): comparative inexperience that has led to some early glitches on policy and major appointees, and a nice-guy persona that has led congressional and interest-group leaders to think he can be rolled.
The early days of the Obama presidency would not be that important had he not taken office during a time of financial and economic crisis. All modern Presidents have had early fumbles and setbacks before they truly hit their strides.
The fabled Franklin D. Roosevelt, for instance — much used as a role model in the current economic distress — made trial-and-error, sometimes unsuccessful initiatives over a long period before he settled into a pattern. (His New Deal economic policies saved our free economic system but, truth be told, were unsuccessful in ending the Great Depression. World War II did that). John F. Kennedy found himself sucked into the CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Bill Clinton squandered his early political capital by having to dump unvetted Cabinet nominees and getting embroiled in controversies over the White House travel office and gays in the military. George W. Bush? Well, you know about that.
Obama's presidential campaign was professional and disciplined. Yet his presidential transition and early presidency have not been. One of his vulnerabilities, surprisingly, has been his early reliance on Clinton-era regulars who have contributed to some of his problems.
An early indication of trouble was the search for his vice presidential candidate. Obama named a surprising troika to vet his possible vice-presidential running mates. The leader of the group, Jim Johnson, had aided candidates Walter Mondale and John Kerry in their running-mate searches, but with lack of distinction. Johnson urged Mondale's choice of Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, whose husband turned out to have ties to the wrong family, and had urged Kerry to name Sen. John McCain as No. 2. The most surprising aspect of Johnson's designation, however, was his role as a limousine-riding, high-dollar former chair of embattled Fannie Mae, where he set a course that led his successor, Frank Raines, into big legal trouble. Obama, in the end, had to drop Johnson from his veep-search role.
The second troika member was current Attorney General Eric Holder, who had met Obama at a dinner party and offered his services. Holder was a wealthy, well-connected D.C. lawyer who had been embarrassed in President Bill Clinton's closing days by facilitating as Deputy Attorney General his pardons of fugitive financier Marc Rich, several terrorists, drug traffickers, and politically connected types. (Holder, in recent confirmation hearings, conceded he had made a "mistake" in facilitating the pardons but did not explain why he did not oppose them).
Holder also was a subject of criticism as a VP vetter but survived when Obama dumped Johnson off the sleigh. The third member of the committee was Caroline Kennedy, a big name but not someone familiar with the backgrounds, track records, and characters of possible Obama running mates.
During this same period, one of Obama's leading D.C. supporters was former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, also by then a high-dollar, limousine-riding, full-fledged member of the capital's influence peddling community. Not an attorney, Daschle was associated with a law firm. Among his principal clients were health-sector companies and trade associations. His wife had a lucrative lobbying business that involved Health and Human Services-related issues.
Then Obama named as his transition director John Podesta, a former Bill Clinton chief-of-staff, and as his chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel, a former Chicago congressman who also had spent eight years as a Clinton White House staffer. His eventual White House counsel would be Gregory Craig, who defended Clinton against impeachment charges.
When asked early on why he appeared to be relying so greatly on Clinton alumni in his new presidency, Obama responded that they were the only people around with relevant experience. Well, not really. There remain in the capital and around the country numerous capable Democrats and others who did not serve nor come to political maturity in the Clinton administration.
No matter how personally capable, people conditioned by their service in a particular administration invariably form mindsets in that administration of how business is to be done. (My first service came in the Kennedy/Johnson years and my instincts and mindset were shaped thereafter by that experience). The weakness of the Clinton presidency was its focus on the tactical, the short-term, and the politically expedient. Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin and a few others maintained a longer-term vision. But day to day, among the Clinton White House political staff, the question was: How do we sustain the president's popularity in the period immediately ahead?
The next test of the new team was Obama's appointments to cabinet posts. Again, results have been mixed. Daschle has been forced to step down as Health and Human Services nominee because of non-payment of taxes (and a number of other issues that threatened to come to light if confirmation hearings went forward). Tim Geithner has survived as Treasury Secretary despite similar IRS non-tax-payment issues. Were we not in financial crisis, his nomination likely would also have been withdrawn.
Obama's original Commerce Secretary nominee, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, was forced out by Obama after an ongoing ethics investigations in New Mexico came to light. White House performance watchdog Nancy Killefer also was pushed off the plank because of non-payment-of-taxes issues. Confirmation hearings involving other Cabinet nominees may or may not bring other public surprises.
Obama's core financial/economic team is strong. His foreign policy/national security team benefits from the presence of holdover Defense Secretary Bob Gates and National Security Adviser Jim Jones. The appointment of Hillary Clinton at State remains problematic. It is a huge risk — mainly because Obama and Clinton are relatively inexperienced in foreign affairs. She already is pushing for extended turf and a bigger budget at State.
As for the naming of Ron Sims to be a deputy secretary in HUD: that post is the one in any department charged with running a tight operational and administrative ship while the secretary does the leading and talking. Few in King County, particularly those familiar with Sims' management of the elections office, county jail, wastewater treatment, and transportation issues, would characterize him as an appropriate choice to run the management side of a multibillion-dollar, often trouble-plagued federal department.
Does Obama really know the strengths and weaknesses of his Cabinet members? Did he really know much about the people he put in charge of his vice-presidential search and transition? I suspect the answer is no. But if that is so, he would not be the first president to enter office accordingly.
President Jimmy Carter's principal appointees, for the most part, were strangers to him. President Clinton knew his nominees but was accustomed to being a one-man show and, thus, regarded the identities of his supporting cast to be unimportant. President George W. Bush, as we quickly saw, became the inexperienced instrument of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld, and their claque before learning too late that their advice was bad. The same happened to President Lyndon Johnson with his inherited national-security team from the JFK administration.
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