The Danger of Holdovers

By David S. Broder
Thursday, December 4, 2008

In the two most crucial areas facing his presidency, national security and economic policy, Barack Obama has opted for continuity, not change. That is reassuring to many in the short term, but it entails long-term risks.

By keeping Robert Gates as defense secretary and selecting Tim Geithner as his secretary of the Treasury, the president-elect has enlisted two stars of the Bush years. No one will fault Obama's judgment in recognizing their talents or the contribution they can make to his success.

Gates, who took over from Don Rumsfeld two years ago, has not only managed the Pentagon with a firm hand but has rebuilt its relationships with Capitol Hill and the State Department, both of which were badly damaged by his predecessor. In a series of thoughtful speeches, Gates has argued for a higher level of coordination in administration policy, rejecting any hint of parochialism and setting an example for others in the national security arena.

Geithner, the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, brought sterling academic credentials and a wealth of valuable experience at the Treasury Department to his post near the top of the Fed bureaucracy. Along with Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Geithner has been helping to call the shots on the effort to rescue Wall Street and the banking system from the effects of the economic meltdown.

A novice president such as Obama could not hope for better counselors as he inherits two wars, a recession and other scary challenges. Gates and Geithner have both earned reputations for speaking truth to power. Their courage and integrity will be needed.

But one hopes that Obama will not forget the lesson John Kennedy learned about handoffs. In his case, it was not so much a question of personnel as policy, specifically the Bay of Pigs adventure.

The idea for an American-supported invasion of Cuba by a CIA-trained group of anti-Castro rebels was hatched during Dwight D. Eisenhower's final months in office. When the new president was briefed on the plan, he raised questions but ultimately was persuaded to give it a try.

It blew up in his face, and, in the end, he was forced into the humiliating position of bargaining with Fidel Castro for the release of the defeated forces. Some scholars argue that Moscow's reading of the fiasco led to its boldness in erecting the Berlin Wall and attempting to place missiles in Cuba.

There may be nothing at all similar to the Bay of Pigs invasion on the secret books of Gates's Pentagon. If there were, we would not know. But we do know that Special Forces units are operating in Iraq and in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, and we have been told that they have been deployed on anti-terrorism missions in many other countries.

When and if Gates brings such missions to his new White House boss, he will presumably come as an advocate. The Kennedy example suggests that Obama and his advisers should be very skeptical in their questioning.

Geithner's example could be equally consequential, if less dramatic. He has a personal and institutional investment in the policies now on the books for containing and, one hopes, reversing this banking-credit-economic mess. Obama clearly is ready to go well beyond the existing remedies, but he has not yet indicated whether he is prepared to scrap any of the past steps because they have not yielded the desired results.

With Geithner at the table, will Obama be more reluctant to change course? Will Peter Orszag at the Office of Management and Budget or Larry Summers at the White House National Economic Council, the other key economists named by Obama, be willing to challenge Geithner if they disagree with him?

It has often been said that in government, people are policy. When the people are holdovers, their policy needs extra scrutiny.

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