Opinion

All the president-elect's men

Today's question: Who would you like to see in Barack Obama's Cabinet, and which potential picks do you think would be a mistake? Previously, Weigel and Lilly debated Rahm Emanuel's selection as chief of staff.

Pass up on Robert Kennedy Jr., go for centristsPoint: David Weigel

Scott,

I don't expect President Obama to keep to all of the promises he made this year. What candidate ever does? But Obama was awfully specific about the make-up of his prospective Cabinet as early as May. Like most everyone in high-level politics, he has read "Team of Rivals," Doris Kearns Goodwin's thrilling history of how Abraham Lincoln put together a Cabinet of his political foes and won the Civil War.

"You know," Obama said, "if I really thought John McCain was the absolute best person for the Department of Homeland Security, I would put him there."

Now, the president-elect probably won't make that exact appointment; after this campaign, you've got to worry who McCain would make an undersecretary. But Obama would serve the country well if he adheres to that spirit, not just because it's good politics and some of the people who voted for Obama don't agree with him (such as the 20% of self-identified "conservatives" who supported him on election day) but because it would be good policy. The biggest risk Obama could take would be to kowtow to old-line liberal Democrats who expect to take another turn in power. Based on the names that are circulating so far -- on the possibility of former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers getting his job back against the clamoring of activists and gender outrage gurus -- I am cautiously optimistic.

One reason my optimism is measured: If former House Whip David E. Bonior is really on the short list for Labor secretary, then that's as close as he should get to the job. His ideas about unionization are frozen in the 1950s, and he's one of the most bullish partisans in modern Democratic politics (I wouldn't be surprised if the House ran out of paper temporarily after Bonior's run of filing ethics charges against then-Speaker Newt Gingrich). Obama would be better off with someone like Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, who understands globalization and isn't going to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The heads of the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency are going have more prominent jobs in this administration than any of their predecessors since the 1970s, which is why I hope Robert F. Kennedy Jr. doesn't get either job. He's ridden his famous name into a career of mild kookery, including charges that President Bush stole the 2004 (yes, 2004) election and that mercury absolutely, positively causes autism. But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger might be a good choice for either role. He's been a disappointment in many ways, with economic theories that combine the worst of John Maynard Keynes and the most misunderstood of Milton Friedman. But he is a serious environmentalist and the rare politician who could sell consumers on the sacrifices that they'll need to make. Get him away from a state budget and he'd be fine.

Obama has kept up friendships with some interesting, heterodox economic thinkers that he'd do well to put in his government, if not his Cabinet, right away. I'm thinking of Austan Goolsbee and Jeffrey Liebman, the latter having been pilloried for his research on privatizing Social Security. And I'd love for some of those late-breaking "Obamacons" to be given posts in a unity government. Atty. Gen. Charles Fried? White House Counsel Douglas Kmiec? The president-elect's transition team should take a serious look at people of the old right and libertarian right who criticized the abuses of the Bush-Cheney administration while most of their fellow travelers bought "W" bumper stickers -- if he really wants to audaciously change America, that is.

David Weigel is an associate editor at Reason magazine, where he writes a column on national politics.

Americans gave Obama a mandate; his Cabinet should reflect thatCounterpoint: Scott Lilly

David,

I agree with you that the president-elect should appoint the most talented people that he can find and that he should not shy away from philosophical diversity. Every indication we have so far is that Obama agrees with us.

What is impressive about what we know of the Obama transition is that it has established an elaborate process to evaluate the skills of potential office holders and ensure that they are judged on the best available information rather than superficial biases or past political connections. We may have to wait a few weeks to know who will run this or that department or agency, but we at least have the satisfaction of knowing that great effort is being exerted to determine who will do the best job.

It is also important that the incoming president not only appoint people of differing philosophies, but that he's also willing to listen to their viewpoints as the governing process goes forward. Paul O'Neill may or may not have been the best choice for Treasury secretary in the first term of the Bush administration, but it really didn't matter that much. His own account of his tenure indicates that his principal function was to serve as a potted plant -- hauled out for photo opportunities when the administration wanted to make it appear that he supported its policies despite the fact that he had little input in developing them.

"The change we need" is more than anything else a return to information-based decision-making, in which ideas from across government flow up to policymakers rather than the top-down process that has destroyed the government's effectiveness. Witness the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the occupation of Iraq and the care of our soldiers at Walter Reed National Army Medical Center.

While philosophical diversity is important, it also has its limits. The "team of rivals" appointed by Lincoln was the product of extraordinary political circumstances. Lincoln was elected in 1860 with less than 40% of the popular vote. He recognized that a successful prosecution of the war would require a coalition of all of those who opposed secession.

By contrast, Obama won a clear majority of the popular vote and two-thirds of the electoral vote. His victory was based on specific promises to move the country in a new direction. He has an obligation to appoint people who will help him deliver on those promises. I think all of the candidates you mention, Dave, are worthy of consideration. Whether or not they should be chosen over others should depend not only on the talent that they bring to a particular position but also whether they are able to use that talent on behalf of the agenda the American people voted for on Nov. 4.

Also, I think you should reconsider your objection to Summers and Bonior as potential Cabinet members. Both are talented individuals. Summers is one of the great minds in modern economics, and there is little doubt that he has skills the country badly needs at this critical juncture. I hope he will serve the new administration in some important capacity.

Bonior has a passion for helping those who have too little voice in the affairs of our country -- the ordinary working people who have seen their wages stagnate, their pensions deflate and their healthcare plans diminish. If he is not to become the next Labor secretary, I hope the nominee will be someone who can match his commitment to those in this country who have gotten the shortest end of the deal under the unfortunate policies of the current administration.

Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, has served in numerous posts for members of Congress and the Democratic Party.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Comments
Loading