Obama's Big Three

The transition puts some impressive names in the top three cabinet jobs, though Clinton is not the best match at State. Other appointments suggest too much of a Clinton restoration.
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Striding the national stage

The transition puts some impressive names in the top three cabinet jobs, though Clinton is not the best match at State. Other appointments suggest too much of a Clinton restoration.

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.

The optimal Secretary of State is a wise person, above partisan politics, able to help a president make and conduct wise foreign policy. He or she ideally would be someone considered above personal ambition. Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, longtime chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee, would be such a person (although too old now to be considered). Clinton, if she got the job, would be taken out of domestic policy altogether. As a senator, she prospectively would play a lead role next year in framing and pushing an Obama domestic agenda, to include health-care reform, where she has spent so much previous time.

There is another argument against Clinton, and that is her limited foreign-policy experience. As first lady, she did not receive even routine daily intelligence briefings given to senior White House staff. In the Senate, she has not played a lead role in foreign affairs. On the key issue in the 2008 Democratic nominating campaign, Iraq, she and Obama disagreed. The greatest media coverage of Clinton and foreign policy, during the campaign, related to her confabulation about dodging bullets in the Balkans while on an inspection tour there. Obama himself is not deeply experienced in foreign affairs. Clinton thus would be a risky appointment, and I am hoping both Obama and she reconsider her role.

Others thought in the running have included Richardson, Sen. John Kerry, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, and former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel. Hagel is liked by Democrats because of his criticisms of President Bush, but he is less brainy than the others mentioned.

Confirmation issues: Where to start? President Clinton's wide for-profit and non-profit activities would come under scrutiny. Questioners surely would dredge up rough statements Obama and Clinton exchanged on foreign-policy issues during the nominating campaign. On the other hand, Clinton is a strong national figure with enhanced influence on Capitol Hill.

At Defense, present Secretary of Defense Bob Gates increasingly is seen as a holdover appointee in that job. He has served superbly since leaving his Skagit Valley farm and replacing Rumsfeld when he was fired. It appears likely that, if he wants to stay, Obama will ask him to do so. He would be particularly valuable to the new president in marshaling bipartisan support for an updated Iraq exit strategy. Washington Rep. Norm Dicks is highly qualified for the job, if Gates does not take it, and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn would be a strong possibility.

Keeping Gates at his post would illustrate how Presidents have frequently chosen Secretaries of State, Defense, and Treasury who were identified with the opposition party. All preside over policy areas where it is important to generate consensus across party lines.

In looking at other recent appointees, most have direct ties with Obama. Attorney General-designate Eric Holder has a strong reputation as an attorney and prosecutor. He served as deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration but was an early 2008 supporter of Obama's. But there is one 800-pound gorilla issue which will be raised at Holder's confirmation hearing. Just how much did he know, and what input did he make, about President Clinton's flood of pardons and commutations in the final days of his presidency? Clinton avoided dealing with Attorney General Janet Reno and initially connected to Justice through his Arkansas friend, Webster Hubbell. After Hubbell was prosecuted and went to jail, the contact point eventually became Holder. Holder was the one who rushed the pardons and commutations through without, former FBI Director Lous Freeh alleges, seeking any FBI input or review of FBI files. The matter was raised briefly during Obama's vice presidential selection process. Jim Johnson, a co-chair of the selection team, was forced to step down after his role in the Fannie Mae collapse became public. Holder, a second co-hair (Caroline Kennedy was the third), fended off similar pressures about the midnight pardons.

Tom Daschle, a former Senate Democatic leader, is reported to be Obama's designee at Health and Human Services. He, too, was an early Obama supporter in 2008. He is said to have asked that he also be named as White House health-care czar, thus giving him full rein over development of Obama's promised national health care reform package. Daschle is well liked on Capitol Hill and should have no confirmation problems. Before January, however, something will have to be done to clear up possible conflict-of-interest issues involving his wife's lobbying practice. She represents some clients doing business with HHS.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano appears to be Obama's designee at Homeland Security. She, too, backed Obama over Clinton in the Democratic nominating contest. After saying she intended to serve out her gubernatorial term, in the event of a Democratic presidency, she then indicated an interest in being Attorney General (she is a former Arizona attorney general). But she also is a good fit for the Homeland Security job. She is tough minded and has dealt first-hand in Arizona with immigration and homeland-security issues. One complication: Democrats made in-state gains in Arizona this year. If Napolitano leaves the goverorship, she will be succeeded by Secretary of State Jan Brewer, a hard-line Republican conservative.

White House counselors Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod are close Chicago advisors of Obama's. White House counsel-designate Gregory Craig defended President Clinton in his impeachment proceedings but became one of Obama's early national security/foreign policy advisors in his nominating campaign. Other key White House appointees, however, are mostly Clinton-era alumni, and the same holds true for the Obama transition staffs.

Late word Friday pointed to the appointment of retired Gen. James Jones, a former Marine Corps commandant and NATO commander, as Obama's national security advisor. James has broad international experience. If he and Obama relate well to each other, his would be a solid choice, not unlike that of Gen. Brent Scowcroft as President George H.W. Bush's national security advisor.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com.