The country badly wants and needs to turn a page when President-elect Barack Obama is sworn into office on January 20, and I remain highly optimistic that his temperament and intelligence will lead to successful governance. Small blips are beginning to turn up, however, which should remind us that he is relatively inexperienced and that it is one thing to pursue a consistent, successful campaign strategy and another to pursue consistent, successful governing.
I noted earlier this week the Clinton-like Obama response to inquiries about his or his staff's contacts regarding his successor as U.S. Senator from Illinois with embattled Gov. Rod Blagojovich. Rather than simply stating, right away, that neither he nor his staff had engaged in hanky panky with the governor, Obama promised an exhaustive survey of his staff's contacts, to be followed by a report. Still no report (though it is expected early this coming week). In the meantime, it turns out that his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel may have had multiple, unspecified contacts with Blagojovich or his staff. Not a good portent.
The release Thursday of the list of foreign and other contributors to former President Bill Clinton's foundation reaffirmed what experienced politicos expected — namely, that Clinton not only was pulling down big honoraria and fees from such sources but, additionally, was shaking the tree for foundation contributions. Will Secretary of State-designee Hillary Clinton be compromised by these contributions?
It can be argued that the donations took place in the past (though dates for the gifts were not supplied by Clinton) and need not affect her now. On the other hand, imagine that your spouse or partner had pulled down millions from such sources — and might still be pulling them down — and that your job entailed making decisions which involved their interests. It is hard to argue that Hillary has not already been compromised. It still remains to be seen, moreover, if Obama is insisting that he have personal approval of her principal appointees at State. In the past, Hillary has carried with her a claque. If she does so at State, their first impulse will be to pursue her interests rather than the President's.
Also, Obama appears not to fully appreciate the land mines that await his Attorney General nominee, Eric Holder, in his confirmation hearings. Holder, as Deputy AG in the Clinton administration, managed the last-minute pardons and commutations in the outgoing President's final hours in office. These included the one for fugitive financier Marc Rich. None were cleared with the FBI or the prosecutors involved in the cases. Many, including the one for Rich, just plain stank. The Democratic Senate majority is sufficient to confirm Holder, but the confirmation process will put at center stage some questionable activity by the man Obama is putting in place as the country's principal law enforcement official. Holder's position will have been compromised before he begins.
Obama's financial/economic policy appointees have been strong. His appointments of Bob Gates and General Jim Jones at Defense and the National Security Council also are excellent. The remainder of his Cabinet, it turns out, is being appointed mainly for political, regional, ethnic, and other balance. There is no surprise in this: second-tier Cabinet appointments traditionally are made this way. "Change" might have dictated appointments based more greatly on demonstrated competence in the policy areas in question. But there are no obvious losers or incompetents on the list. One commentator remarked that no gays had yet been given Cabinet appointments. Homeland Security Secretary-designee Janet Napolitano, however, has lived with her gay partner in Arizona for several years and is presumed by her home-staters to be gay. But she was appointed for her competence and not her sexual orientation which, in any case, should be considered irrelevant.
I was jolted as much as anyone else Thursday when Obama announced that evangelist Rick Warren would deliver a prayer at the inaugural. Obama explained the choice of Warren, who opposes abortion and gay marriage, as an example of reaching out. (Another prayer will be delivered by the Rev. Joseph Lowry of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a major figure for years in the country's spiritual and political life). Warren, who presided over a Obama-McCain televised debate during the campaign season, has a huge following among voters Obama would like to secure. Yet Warren has a background common to many populist evangelists: no actual divinity degree, false claims of involvement in Third World charity, and so on. If "reaching out" were sought, why not offer the role to a Catholic, Jewish, or mainstream Protestant religious figure?
None of these things constitutes a fatal stumble. But they do underscore the fact that our promising new President is still finding his way and, additionally, is not getting the kind of objective, professional advice from his White House staff that he received from his campaign staff.