Sunday, November 16, 2008

Under the microscope

He came out of Illinois as a person of limited political experience. He had not been without defeats in his early political career. He was tall, slender and unusual in appearance. He came to power in a time of unprecedented crisis in the history of our nation. He faced difficult decisions even before he officially took office. When Abraham Lincoln became the 16th President of the United States in 1861, he filled many of his cabinet positions not with his political allies, but with those who challenged him in his quest for the highest office. President Lincoln brought his opponents for the 1860 Republican nomination into his cabinet as attorney general and secretaries of the Treasury and the State.

Hillary Clinton's name has now surfaced prominently as the frontrunner for the choice as Secretary of State. Without determining whether this is the best career move for her (Harry Reid clearly is blocking her ability to play the leading role in the Senate, but is a Supreme Court seat there for the taking?), the consideration of Clinton would be viewed by most as Obama's sleeping with the enemy. Yet, I would suggest that this contemplated action is nothing if not consistent with Obama's philosophy of governing, modeled on Lincoln.

In a town hall meeting in Florida in May of this year, Obama was asked if he would consider Senator Clinton for his running mate on the Democratic ticket. He responded that "my goal is to have the best possible government, and that means me winning... I'm a practical minded guy. And you know, one of my heroes is Abraham Lincoln". Obama went on to refer to the Doris Kearns Goodwin book on Lincoln's cabinet choices "Team of Rivals" and Lincoln's pulling political adversaries into his Cabinet "Because whatever personal feelings there were, the issue was how can we get this country through a time of crisis? I think that has to be the approach one takes to the Vice President or the Cabinet".

Yet, every move Obama makes is now under the most intense scrutiny and potential criticism. Richard Halloran, (Taipei News , November16, 2008) reports of his concern that Obama is surrounding himself with nothing more than a retooled Clinton staff. He points to Rahm Emanuel, Obama's only appointment so far (Chief of Staff) as being a former aide in the Clinton administration; the transition team being headed by a former Clinton chief of Staff (Podesta), the selection committee for the foreign policy team being headed by a former Clinton secretary of state (Christopher ) the defense selection team being headed by a former chair of the foreign services committee under Clinton (Nunn), and Lawrence Summers possibly repeating the role he held in the Clinton administration of Secretary of the Treasury. I think the fallacy in Mr. Halloran's position is that he would just say discard everyone and everything that has touched Washington in the last 16 years under the banner of change. That, to me, is short sited and choosing form over substance.

As troubling is the notion that Obama has an obligation to certain constituencies to give various high level cabinet appointments to one of their choices. Bonnie Erbe (US News, November 13,2008) reports that the rumors in Washington are that there will be only 2 female choices for Cabinet positions (Penny Pritzker at Commerce and Janet Napolitano at Justice). Ms. Erbe says that Obama "owes it to women and women of color whose votes he secured in historic proportions to put them in Cabinet positions they've not yet held, such as Treasury and Defense". She goes on to point out that George W. Bush , " no friend of women" had 7 women serving for all or part of his second term as President".

Is Ms. Erbe any more right or wrong than Mr. Halloran? Does Obama HAVE TO rid himself of any connection to the past to be the true candidate of change? Does he HAVE TO fill his cabinet with selections that serve as thank you notes to all that put him in the ultimate position of power? Or does he as President, take the approach of Lincoln?

I do not believe that President-elect Obama thinks that he has the luxury of making his decisions based on anything other than what ultimately will best serve the needs of the nation. To do anything less would be, in my opinion, unpresidential.

(this piece was written early today, but was not posted until now, to allow 100 to take its preappointed position. In the interim, I have read today's op ed by Maureen Dowd in the NY Times, that echoes some of the sentiments discussed above)

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