04 December 2008

Obama's Delicate Dance

It's been a quiet couple of weeks for the topics I like to cover in this column; not so much because nothing's been happening, as because not a lot of it is really new. The economy continues to wrestle with the downward spiral triggered by the sub-prime mortgage mess, for example, and there's little about it that's really new relative to what I've already discussed.

The economic news at the moment is that the Big Three US automakers are back on Capitol Hill begging for a dime, and the Senate is looking at best reluctant and at worst outright recalcitrant. Democratic leadership is very much in favour of some kind of bailout, not least of which because the Democratic Party is still very much beholden to organized labor. The rank-and-file of the party, however, are much less interested, and the Republicans aren't really interested at all. In particular, Senator Shelby continues to rail against the idea and treat the CEOs of those companies as punching bags when they come to testify. Meanwhile, light sweet crude hit $43.97 the barrel this afternoon.

But that's not what I'm here to talk about right now...


Since 5 November, President-Designate Barack Obama has been very careful, in public pronouncements, to insist that there is only one president at a time, and it ain't him yet. This despite calls from nearly every quarter for him to weigh in on the key issues that will soon be His Problem. World leaders, for example, were disappointed he didn't attend the economic summit on 15 November, merely sending quasi-official observers to the proceedings.

As I think I've said before, from the standpoint of respect for the office of president--and safeguarding his own eventual lame-duck days--this is the right stance to take. It can't be an easy one, however, for a man as intelligent as he, who seems to have gotten involved in politics in part because of a passion to make things better (and yes, for the moment, I'm choosing to take him at face value, foolish though that may be), to find himself right on the cusp of being able to do something, and yet having to wait just a little longer.

Which explains the somewhat mixed message he's actually sending with his transition. While it's plenty usual for a president-designate or president-elect to start naming his intended nominees before he's sworn in, it's downright rare for him to start making announcements in November, even if he already knows in his own head who they're going to be. At this point, he's announced his intended nominees for State, Commerce, Treasury and Defense, as well as various key "inside the White House" advisory posts. These are all areas of extreme national importance right now, so it's understandable why he might start with these.

But by starting so early, and naming such high-profile, intelligent, active individuals to the roles, it looks a lot like a shadow government.

Shadow governments are nothing new in parliamentary nations. It's quite common for the Loyal Opposition to have a key members of its parliamentary caucus named to especially keep an eye on specific departments of government, becoming, in essence, the relevant minister's shadow.

In the US, however, we don't tend to work this way. And it's particularly odd coming from the man who keeps insisting that there's only one president at a time.


On the other hand, I have to say that I have few complaints with his choices so far, both for those top jobs and for others that have been mentioned.

George W. Bush has notoriously governed by favorites, with the most important qualification for any nomination being personal and ideological loyalty to him. An extreme example of this is the sad case of Harriet Miers and her inexplicable and ultimately failed nomination to the Supreme Court. Less extreme, and more ideological than personal, was the similarly inexplicable, but strangely successful nomination of John Roberts to become Chief Justice of the United States, before he'd even been successfully voted on for the Supreme Court!

The glaring exception, in turn, was General Colin Powell, who tried valiantly to serve as Bush's secretary of state, only to be continually undermined by those with closer personal and ideological ties to the president.

While much is being made of Obama's "team of rivals", what's really remarkable is that this is a team of technocrats, people who are being chosen either because of clear qualifications for the specific office, or because they're generally recognized as being intelligent enough to do the job without them. Hillary Clinton, for example, doesn't really have that much direct foreign policy experience, and has never been a diplomat; yet no-one I've seen really doubts her ability to act as Obama's chief envoy and master of foreign affairs.

Now, there's a downside to technocrats, too. Highly educated people sometimes lose sight of practical reality. They sometimes get caught up in their own cleverness. But right now, I'm sort of looking forward to the idea of a cabinet staffed entirely by people who are widely regarded as being picked because they're smart.

No comments: