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.
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