President Obama has spent much of the last week acting as Chiller in Chief, trying to reassure the many people around the world made anxious and fearful by the election of Donald Trump. Continuing in that vein Monday, Obama said he thought his successor was "pragmatic," not ideological, "and that can serve him well as long as he has got good people around him and he has a clear sense of direction."
Pragmatism would be a welcome change from the extreme views and unfulfillable promises Trump aired during the campaign. His first staffing moves, however, don't breed confidence that he'll surround himself with "good people" with relevant experience and solid judgment who advance the interests of all Americans.
One of the very first Trump appointments was Stephen K. Bannon, a venture capitalist turned media provocateur who will serve as Trump's chief strategist. As the boss of Breitbart.com, Bannon positioned himself as the leader of the "alt-right," a loosely organized coalition of anti-establishment forces that ranged from die-hard conservatives to white supremacists. And though his defenders insist that Bannon is neither racist nor anti-Semitic, he turned Breitbart into the go-to media outlet for people who are — while peddling half-truths, hyperbole and disinformation on behalf of Breitbart's pet causes. Let's hope that Trump means to give this divisive figure an impressive title but no substantive role in the new administration.
Trump's transition team has gotten off to a rough start, with former head Chris Christie being bounced on Friday and a top national-security advisor leaving Tuesday. Meanwhile, many of the leading candidates for Cabinet positions appear to be people like Bannon — loyalists from the Trump campaign who aren't necessarily suited for the jobs they may receive.
For example, two of the leading names for secretary of State — former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton — are notoriously abrasive and polarizing figures who are ill-suited to be America's chief diplomat. And a top candidate to head the Department of Homeland Security is Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a border-enforcement zealot with little apparent interest in workable immigration policy.
When Obama urged Trump to surround himself with "good people," he didn't mean good friends or allies — he meant people with the experience, expertise and temperament to make up for Trump's shortcomings in those areas. In filling out his team, the president-elect needs to stop thinking about the campaign behind him and start focusing on the message that his choices send about the country's future.