Obama’s well-stocked Cabinet

Now that Barack Obama has filled all of the seats at (and near) his Cabinet table, one thing is clear: The candidate who campaigned on a platform of change attaches equal importance to competence.

Seldom has a presidential Cabinet included so many intellectual and political heavyweights. Obama’s other achievement is to have assembled such an impressive team with due deference to the need for an administration that “looks like America” -- Bill Clinton’s shorthand for ethnic and gender diversity.

Of course, none of this is a guarantee of influence. New presidents typically promise that members of the Cabinet will be their most intimate advisors, yet even heads of the important departments sometimes have found themselves exiled from the president’s inner councils. That was the case with William P. Rogers, President Nixon’s first secretary of State, who was marginalized by National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger. President Reagan was so unfamiliar with Samuel R. Pierce Jr., his own secretary of Housing and Urban Development, that Reagan greeted Pierce as “Mr. Mayor” at a reception.

The detail-minded Obama isn’t likely to need a refresher course in who’s who in his Cabinet. For one thing, he will remember some of them from the campaign trail. Much has been made of the fact that the Cabinet includes three of Obama’s competitors for the 2008 Democratic nomination: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as secretary of Commerce and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack as secretary of Agriculture. (Another Obama primary rival, Joe Biden, was tapped to be vice president.)

The idea of a contentious “team of rivals” is a bit overblown, given the poor campaign performances of Richardson and Vilsack. But Clinton, the one former rival who almost defeated Obama, is in a class by herself and continues to command a national constituency. The interesting question is what will happen if Obama consistently spurns her advice or if a rift develops between the two on some crucial issue with domestic political overtones. Clinton’s superstar status makes her the most intriguing of Obama’s appointments, but also potentially the riskiest.

Other prospective Cabinet members derive their stature -- and in some cases their unpopularity -- from accomplishments outside electoral politics. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, is distrusted by some Obama supporters because of his association with a war that the president-elect opposed. But Gates has impressed both Republicans and Democrats in Congress with his steady stewardship of the Pentagon, and differences between the Bush and Obama approaches to Iraq have narrowed.

Timothy F. Geithner, Obama’s choice for Treasury secretary, has worked for five previous secretaries of the Treasury. As president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, Geithner also played an intimate role in the last year’s financial rescues, some of which have earned praise (Bear Stearns) and others criticism (AIG, the Troubled Asset Relief Program). Eric H. Holder Jr., Obama’s nominee for attorney general, is a former judge and prosecutor who held the second-highest position in the Justice Department in the Clinton administration. Even Republican senators who question his role in Bill Clinton’s pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich -- a subject they will raise at his confirmation hearings -- concede Holder’s stellar credentials.

In the past, an analysis of a new Cabinet might have stopped with this “inner Cabinet” of the attorney general and the secretaries of State, Defense and the Treasury. But the contrast between major and minor positions must be reconsidered in light of urgent environmental, energy and education issues. Cabinet-level officials responsible for implementing Obama’s vision of a greener and less gas-guzzling economy include a Nobel Prize-winning physicist (Secretary of Energy-designate Steven Chu), an experienced state environmental administrator (proposed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson) and a Western-state senator with expertise in land management (Secretary of Interior-designate Ken Salazar of Colorado). The intersection of energy and environmental policy is one area in which Cabinet-level officials may contend for influence with a “czar,” Carole Browner, who will be responsible for energy issues that transcend individual agencies.

Another Cabinet portfolio that has assumed broader significance is education. In the No Child Left Behind Act, Congress and the Bush administration embraced the once heretical idea that the federal government could use its leverage to raise educational achievement through high-stakes testing. That effort has been complicated by differences among the key players in public education politics, including teachers unions, which emphasize adequate funding and smaller class size, and reformers, who press for merit pay, charter schools and alternative teacher certification. Obama’s nominee for secretary of Education, Chicago schools Supt. Arne Duncan, is a reformer respected by traditionalists and innovators alike.

The best measure by which to evaluate any president’s administration is the quality of the appointees. In recent times, however, a president’s inner circle also has been viewed through the prism of identity politics. Obama has succeeded on both levels, assembling an impressive roster that includes men and women, blacks, whites, Latinos and Asian Americans. Only once did he seem willing to allow diversity to trump policy. He offered the Cabinet-level position of trade representative to the protectionist Rep. Xavier Becerra, but after Becerra withdrew -- and after Obama had named another Latino, Salazar, as secretary of the Interior -- the Rubik’s Cube was twisted again and the trade portfolio went to former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, an African American supporter of NAFTA.

It’s important that the Cabinet look like America; it’s even more important that Cabinet members are individuals of stature who are in tune with each other and with the president. By either standard, Obama’s Cabinet-making so far looks like a success.