Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 November 2008

Obama’s Meritocracy


[For thanks and links to related blogs, click here. For comment on Eric Holder, click here. 11/29/08: For comment on Samantha Power, click here.]


We now know enough about President-Elect Obama’s choices for his team to see the trend. As I had hoped and predicted, he is assembling a collection of experts. Nearly all his picks so far are superbly qualified by talent, experience and temperament to do their new jobs. Even David Brooks is impressed.

Obama’s picks for official positions include not a single crony. Every one has an independent power base—a source of political support other than Obama and his campaign. So we will have no Michael Browns or Alberto Gonzaleses after January 20.

Some picks—especially on the economic team—have stellar academic credentials. All are centrists and pragmatists. None is an ideologue. The canard about a “far-left liberal” Obama administration is history.

Obama’s choices also have another virtue. All but two mirror Obama’s own temperament. They are steady, low-key people who can make headway without making waves. Tim Geithner (Treasury), Tom Daschle (Health and Human Services), Bill Richardson (Commerce) and Robert Gates (if indeed he stays on as Secdef) are of this mold. Although less well known, so is Janet Napolitano (Homeland Security).

So it now looks as if the mantra “No Drama Obama” will continue well into the new administration. That’s a good thing. With our global economic meltdown, our planet in peril, and two wars, we have enough drama on the merits. We can happily dispense with artificial drama wrought by oversized egos, thoughtlessness, or lack of diplomatic or political skill.

There are two exceptions to this attractive picture. Rahm Emanuel, the new White House Chief of Staff, is renowned as a bulldog and pit bull. Yet the drama he creates is likely to stay behind the scenes, and his experience and skill in dealing with Congress will be invaluable assets in the Obama White House.

Then there is Hillary Clinton (at State).

Let’s begin with the positive. There are millions of political reasons for appointing her—eighteen million in fact. Clinton is a symbol and bearer of the aspirations of Obama’s most important political constituency: women, especially young women.

Women made the difference when the chips were down. They saw through the “spin” and Sarah Palin’s false glitter. Their votes gave us the best candidate in the presidential race and one who has the potential to be our best president since Lincoln.

Without women’s support for Obama, we might be facing a McCain presidency, more failed Republican ideology, and rapid demotion to third-world status. In recognizing Clinton’s heroic but doomed presidential bid, Obama acknowledges their vital contribution to his and our victory.

Women are a natural political constituency for much of what Obama has to do. More than men, most women support universal health care, fixing the economy, saving our planet, winding down two wars, creating a more inclusive and cooperative international atmosphere, and devoting our national talent to our huge unmet domestic needs.

In order to maintain popular momentum for his difficult agenda, Obama must keep women’s loyalty and earn their continuing support. That’s a worthy political goal.

Appointing Clinton also serves three other important political goals. First, it helps neutralize her as a political threat within the Democratic party. In order publicly to criticize the Administration or run for president, she will have to resign her office, giving the world notice of her personal goals. While not insuperable, that awkward step will be a barrier to her ambition.

Second, having Hillary at State neutralizes Bill. No one but he knows how much he owes his wife for his own prominence and success. Now it’s payback time. The extraordinary restraints that Bill reportedly has accepted on his speaking and consulting suggest that he will do a lot to help his wife (and coincidentally our nation) succeed. He may even keep quiet when he should and so avoid undermining the president.

Third, Clinton at State may help give the lie to the common perception at home and abroad that Obama is a feckless intellectual, a brilliant wimp. That notion is ridiculous. Obama is the iron fist in the velvet glove, the like of which our trash-talking culture only vaguely remembers. Even Maureen Dowd has stopped calling him “Obambi”—and for good reason. Yet the false notion of his weakness persists, even among thoughtful people who should know better.

Hillary Clinton spent much of her primary campaign trying to overcome the false notion of the “weaker sex” by feigning machismo. So her presence at State may provide an antidote to the inaccurate and dangerous perception of Obama’s weakness.

These are all important political goals. Perhaps they are essential to building the continuing support that Obama will need as he faces grim reality and asks us all to make the compromises and sacrifices that we must make.

In these political calculations I defer to Obama’s vastly superior political wisdom. Yet on substance choosing Clinton is risky. Her judgment on international affairs has been consistently poor. It’s not just that she voted for war in Iraq without reading the crucial intelligence report. She also failed to recognize: (1) the need to pursue Al Qaeda Central into Pakistan; (2) the danger posed by Musharraf’s inept military rule in Pakistan; (3) the risks of coddling Musharraf to Benazir Bhutto and nascent Pakistani democracy; (4) the counterproductive effect of war-mongering toward Iran, and the possibility of dialogue there; (5) the inadvisability of being perceived as Israel’s unfair partisan; and (6) the fact that talking with our enemies, without preconditions, has been a consistent feature of our foreign policy for half a century.

Clinton’s poor judgment is not confined to foreign affairs. Unfunded mandates were one of two chief reasons why her 1993 health-care proposal failed. Yet she not only insisted on them again in 2007; she used them as the chief means of differentiating her health-care proposals from Obama’s.

That approach was both poor economics and poor politics. No doubt it was a reason why Obama chose Tom Daschle, rather than Clinton, to push through health-care reform. More than any words, that decision of Obama’s is a telling commentary on Clinton’s lack of skill and success in managing the single issue about which she cares most and has the most knowledge and experience.

Poor judgment is not Clinton’s only defect. Her 1993 health-care proposal failed in part because she froze out members of her own party. She made enemies of natural friends. In the presidential debates, she threatened to “obliterate” Iran if it attacks Israel, and she accused Obama—inaccurately—of proposing to “bomb Pakistan.” (What he really proposed was targeting Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan, as we have been doing openly for the last six months.)

You can argue that these were only “slips of the tongue,” made in the heat of a campaign or debates. But in high-level diplomacy such slips can destroy months of dogged work and trigger unnecessary conflict. The level of diplomacy doesn’t get much higher than our Secretary of State.

Perhaps Obama hopes that Joe Biden’s enormous experience (and good judgment!) in foreign affairs will compensate for Clinton’s deficiencies in experience, diplomatic talent, negotiating skill, and substance. Maybe so. But Biden has a loose tongue problem, too. Flawless diplomacy will have to come from somewhere.

What all this means is that Obama ultimately will have to provide more adult supervision of foreign policy than he may have planned, distracting his attention from our urgent domestic agenda. At the least, he may have to mediate between Biden and Clinton as each tries to take control. He will hardly be able to put State and foreign affairs on autopilot, even for a moment.

I would never presume to question Barack Obama’s judgment on politics. I doubted his handling of Hillary Clinton during the primary campaign, and I was wrong. Perhaps I’m wrong about this, too. Perhaps Clinton in office will be a different person than Clinton the candidate. Perhaps Obama’s superbly prescient judgment left her little room to differentiate herself as a candidate without being wrong or seeming silly. (That certainly was the case with McCain.) Perhaps she has good judgment after all. Perhaps she will at least be a team player once offered the chance, for the first time in her life, to do something real on her own. Obama is a good judge of character, and perhaps he sees all this in her.

But right or wrong, I can only call things as I see them. I see Hillary Clinton as a person who relentlessly promoted herself far beyond her native talent and outrageously exaggerated her real experience. I think she will need constant supervision and hand-holding to avoid mistakes, perhaps serious ones. Unlike Obama, she is not a fast learner. Fourteen years after her initial failure, she still hadn’t learned that unfunded mandates are a political non-starter.

Unlike all Obama’s other picks so far, without exception, Clinton is a needy, high-maintenance personality. I see a significant risk that this marriage of convenience will break down, perhaps at a critical moment, undermining the political benefits that now seem the chief reasons for this pick. Only Obama’s stellar talent, in my view, might avoid or reduce these risks. Whether he can manage Clinton, let alone control her, is an open question.

Politics aside, there are better choices for State than Clinton. I continue to hope that Dick Lugar—with his diplomatic temperament, strategic vision, and rare Republican independence—will find a place in the Cabinet, perhaps as Energy Secretary.

But for now, I expect the best from Obama’s choices. Except for Clinton, they promise us a true meritocracy, the like of which we have not seen in over forty years. We will need all these strong horses—straining as far as their native talent, long experience and independent political bases go—to pull our wagon out of the mud.

P.S. Eric Holder at Justice


As I was checking hits on this piece, I occurred to me that I had failed to mention Eric Holder, Obama’s pick for Attorney General. If appointed and confirmed, Holder will replace Michael Mukasey as head of the Department of Justice.

No one chided me for my omission, perhaps for the same reason that I think caused it. I know little about Holder. In fact, I was barely aware of his existence before reading of his probable appointment.

Does this mean that he is an exception to the rule of meritocracy? I’m not so arrogant as to think so just because I know little about him. Apparently, like most of Obama’s other picks, he is a low-key hard worker who doesn’t make waves.

Ideally, I’d like to see someone with a higher national profile and therefore more power to resist orders to cut corners, even from Obama. But Holder has a basis for independent judgment. He has been a U.S. Attorney, judge and partner in a prestigious national law firm. He was also number two in the Clinton Justice Department for three years and appears to have independent support in the Democratic “establishment.”

The main rap against Holder is his role in facilitating (and perhaps advancing) Bill Clinton’s egregious pardon of fugitive financier and Clinton contributor Marc Rich on the last day of Clinton’s presidency. Holder has been harshly criticized for his role in the pardon, which was hardly admirable. But I think it’s unfair to judge a person by a single act, especially one committed on the way out the door, when people in positions like his are naturally preoccupied with landing on their feet.

Undoubtedly Holder’s role in the Rich pardon will come out at his confirmation hearings if he is nominated. So, evidently, will lots of praise for him. He seems to be universally admired as competent and a straight shooter. So at the moment I’m agnostic about his place in Obama’s meritocracy. We’ll just have to wait and see.

P.P.S. Samantha Power: Inside Watchdog? (Update 11/29/08)

Samantha Power, a chaired professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a Darfur advocate, was fired from President-Elect Obama’s campaign staff for calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” during the primary campaign. Now Power has secured a new position in Obama’s State-Department transition team. The Washington Post speculates that she might win a more lasting role as an advisor at State.

For two reasons, that is among the most encouraging bits of news I’ve heard since the leaking of Clinton’s probable appointment as Secretary of State. First, it suggests that Obama’s “team of rivals” will extend below the Cabinet level. There will be checks and balances everywhere. That’s a wonderful idea.

Second, it promises an FDR-like, as well as a Lincolnesque, approach to governing. One of the things that made FDR a great president was his penchant for maintaining multiple sources of information, well beyond official channels, with different points of view. He didn’t rely on his underlings’ official reports to find out what was going on. President-Elect Obama may be doing the same thing.

Both points are comforting. Whether Power serves as an advisor, a check and balance, or simply as a spy, her presence—and Clinton’s knowledge of it—will help keep Clinton honest, circumspect and focused on the nation’s business, rather than her own.

P.P.P.S. Links

Thanks to Nancy Mickenbecker for directing fruitful links to this blog and for her high praise of it. Her comment linking to my post led me to The Field, which argues persuasively that Senator Clinton’s appointment at State is not yet a done deal. I hope so.

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