By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
If there is a single appointment Barack Obama could make to signal how dramatically things will change in Washington, it would be to name Albert Gore Jr. -- former House member, former senator, former vice president, former presidential nominee and current Custodian of the Planet -- as secretary of state. For all the other aspirants to the job, sorry -- this is an inconvenient truth.
Can you imagine a bolder statement about a new direction when it comes to global warming and the general care of our abused planet? Gore has won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work in this area (and an Oscar, to boot), and his appointment would signal a dramatic shift from the indifference of the Bush era with its cold shoulder to the Kyoto treaty. In one stroke, the United States would emerge as the leader of nations in the effort to save the planet from ourselves -- and could prepare for the consequences of a changed world.
The new president's urgent priority has to be the economy. He has no other choice. But given that Obama has no foreign policy background, he needs a secretary of state who can really run the nation's foreign affairs while the attention of the White House is largely directed elsewhere. Others are capable of handling the job, including, of course, Sen. John Kerry, who is being mentioned. But Gore has as much experience and something else as well -- he was right on the Persian Gulf War (voted yes) and right on the Iraq war (like Obama, he opposed it from the start).
Moving on in the Cabinet, my next choice is Lawrence Summers for Treasury secretary. He once held the post and has since been the president of Harvard, where, after an academic lynching, he was forced to leave. Summers has the intellect and gravitas for the job. He's a liberal, but not one who would alarm the markets. His appointment would show that Obama has the grit to stand up to some fierce Democratic Party interest groups, in this case feminists who will not forgive Summers for being intellectually curious about why women do not do as well as men at the highest levels of math. Summers can be an outstanding social klutz, but a deep recession is not a tea party. He has the tools.
Normally, the next most important Cabinet post would be Defense. But next to Gore at State, nothing would show how much the Obama administration will break from the past than by elevating the secretary of education to the inner Cabinet. My choice: Joel Klein, New York City's schools chancellor.
Many people lament all the energy that is not being drilled for offshore and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But far fewer people get as exercised over the brainpower that is not being tapped in this country on account of an inexcusably awful education system. Klein would change that by, among other things, altering the way teachers are compensated. Good teachers would earn more than average teachers and teachers who want to teach in the toughest, meanest and most desperate schools would earn most of all.
Teachers unions -- another Democratic Party interest group -- hate merit pay, so here's another opportunity for Obama to prove his mettle. The object is to reverse the current situation, in which most teachers are recruited from the bottom quarter of college classes, and instead go for the top quarter -- as do Finland and South Korea, two countries with excellent education systems.
It's a sad commentary on our schools that Obama is probably going to have to send his girls to a private school in Washington. It's also inexpressibly sad that so many kids pass through school -- and go straight to jail, often leaving a victim in their wake. It's good that Klein's belief that public education can be redeemed is so deep that he quit a high-paying job in private industry to take on the immense New York school system.
This is merely my short list. I have not mentioned some truly outstanding people -- Richard Holbrooke, for instance -- nor, for that matter, am I all that confident that Gore would leave Nashville for Foggy Bottom. He's rich now and reports to no one.
Still, Gore as well as Summers and Klein know from their time in Washington -- they all served in the Clinton administration -- that if change is going to be more than a slogan, it will have to come from determined former insiders such as themselves. If they come to Washington, it won't be because they want the job. It'll be because they want the challenge.