Editorial: Old Hands and a Fresh Face in Mr. Obama's Cabinet

Saturday, November 22, 2008

ASSESSING THE emerging Obama administration is a bit like judging the design of the elephant without the trunk or tail. The president-elect's choices for some key posts, notably at the Defense Department, have yet to be leaked; few of the others have been formally announced. Nonetheless, an outline is taking shape, and it is encouraging in a number of ways.

President-elect Barack Obama's picks thus far are experienced, capable, smart and pragmatic. Those adjectives apply to New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (State Department), Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (Homeland Security), former deputy attorney general Eric Holder (Justice), former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (Health and Human Services) and -- the most recent leakees -- Timothy F. Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (Treasury), and retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones (national security adviser).

The assemblage so far also is diverse, and in the most gratifying way, which is to say, in a way that seems naturally occurring: No one can look at any of these selections and think that gender or race was the driving factor in the selection. The reported selection of Congressional Budget Office Director Peter R. Orszag to what could be Washington's most thankless task, heading the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in an era of soaring deficits, is a good sign, as is the reappearance of Jacob Lew, OMB director in the Clinton administration, at the National Economic Council. A common thread among most of these selections is a deep understanding of the legislative process and congressional players.

A striking, and somewhat unexpected, element of Mr. Obama's choices is a degree of risk-taking and boldness. Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff is a smart but edgy pick. The will-she-won't-she Clinton soap opera suggests a tolerance for drama in the service of an all-star Cabinet. Likewise, the selection of Mr. Holder was bound to dredge up some unpleasant memories of the sordid flurry of pardons at the end of the Clinton administration; Mr. Obama's calculation that Mr. Holder's presence at Justice was worth the price of revisiting that scandal reflects a willingness to take some flak for the nominee he wants.

Some critics are unhappy about the number of Clinton administration veterans -- the derogatory word is retreads -- in the new administration. As we've said before, we have no sympathy for this complaint. The best thing the new administration has going for it in comparison to the last Democratic president is the amount of executive branch experience it has to call on. Mr. Obama's willingness to do that and to bring on board those who supported his chief rival -- indeed, to enlist his chief rival herself -- underscores his own confidence.

One missing piece is the promised bipartisanship, although retaining Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates would address that concern. Another selection that will merit scrutiny is Mr. Obama's education secretary: Will the choice reflect his stated commitment to reform? Will it be someone with hands-on experience in education and a proven willingness to experiment? While the new president's attention is understandably focused on the economy, not to mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's critical to have someone who comes to the education post with those credentials.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company