President-elect's new team offers promise, talent, if not obvious change

Barack ObamaHeads of StateGovernmentPoliticsHillary ClintonDiplomacy

THE ISSUE: Obama's Cabinet and administration take shape.

President-elect Barack Obama's picks for Cabinet posts and various other positions have not only been smart. The choices should leave the nation assured that Team Obama will be ready to hit the ground running on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.

In some ways, it is a so-called "team of rivals," a phrase first coined to describe Abraham Lincoln's Cabinet. It is to Obama's credit that he is willing to accept differing opinions, and even put some personal animosity aside, to get the people he wants.

Even if they are people he has disagreed with.

His selection of generally moderate and experienced hands also mocks the hyperbolic rhetoric of the campaign. Late in the game, desperate voices said Obama would lead the nation toward socialism and Marxism. In reality, the array of advisers he has chosen speak to a centrist direction that should disappoint those on the political fringes but assuage the majority in the middle.

In that regard, Obama's Cabinet selections are no surprise. They reflect a cautious, studious approach to governance very similar to the way he ran his campaign. That said, the Senate must assert its checks-and-balances role by quizzing the selections during confirmation hearings. Hopefully, the majority Democrats have learned from Republican mistakes when that party held the cards in the Senate and failed to sufficiently vet nominees picked by the predecessor Bush administration.

Five Obama picks, in particular, merit some close questioning.

One is Hillary Clinton, the New York senator who was Obama's bitter rival for the Democratic nomination. Obama didn't need to nominate Clinton as secretary of state to woo women voters or win back Hillary fans. Those days are past.

From all appearances, he seems to have made this choice because he believes Hillary Clinton is the right person for the job. And maybe, like Obama's other picks, Hillary Clinton has the experience to be ready from day one.

The Senate, however, needs to know how she will approach diplomacy as secretary of state. During the campaign, we heard lots from her about how she would conduct foreign affairs if she were president.

The secretary of state is a different post. The Senate needs to know not just how she will handle foreign policy, but also administer a huge bureacracy that has a hand in everything from international conflicts to global health programs.

Eric Holder also seems a solid pick for attorney general, having served in the No. 2 post at the Justice Department in the Clinton years, and he should be confirmed. But it's important that the Senate question him about his role in pardons dished out by President Clinton in his administration's waning days.

It's smart for Obama to keep Robert Gates as secretary of defense, as the United States plots an exit of sorts from Iraq during Obama's term. Gates does not need to be reconfirmed, but Senate members should seek an opportunity to learn more about his views on Iraq policy, the handling of captured enemy combatants and a post-Bush strategy for fighting terrorism abroad.

Obama's economic team, led by the choice last week of Timothy Geithner as Treasury secretary and bolstered by former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker, has received well-earned kudos for the breadth of its experience and overall smarts. The nation's economic problems won't end overnight, but Obama has shown that getting the economy out of what has been declared a year-long recession is his top priority.

Here again, the Senate needs to know how Geithner's Treasury Department will handle the infamous bailout. How will those funds be dispersed? And how much more government intervention and taxpayer money do they expect will be necessary? And don't forget Obama's pick of Democratic Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security. Choosing her means Arizona will now have a Republican governor, so it's a move signaling that ability trumped political strategy in this selection.

Napolitano is an intriguing pick because she led a border state, and must have lots of ideas and views on ways to protect borders and resolve the undocumented immigrants connundrum. The Senate and the public needs to hear some of them. It is naive to think that political payback doesn't matter in various Obama appointments, but it is refreshing to feel, in these nominations, that the best person for the job seems to matter more.

All this, however, mustn't stand in the way of the Senate's constitutional obligation to come to that conclusion, too.

BOTTOM LINE: It's an impressive squad that shows Obama is putting talent and expertise above politics and personal differences.

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