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Correction to This Article
· A Dec. 19 A-section article incorrectly said that Rep. Hilda L. Solis, nominated by President-elect Barack Obama to be labor secretary, had never served on the committee that handles labor issues. She served on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce in the 107th Congress.

Obama's Nomination of Pragmatists Offers Few Clues About His Plans

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Swiftly completing his Cabinet, President-elect Barack Obama named four officials to oversee transportation, labor, trade and small business policy in his new administration but warned that economic recovery may take years. Video by AP

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 20, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama wrapped up his Cabinet appointments yesterday, meeting his ambitious holiday deadline by assembling a team full of outsize personalities with overlapping jurisdictions and nominees who are known more for pragmatism than for strong leanings on the issues they will oversee.

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In Chicago, the president-elect announced his picks to lead the Departments of Labor and Transportation, the Small Business Administration and the office of trade representative. The announcement of the labor nominee, Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-Calif.), the daughter of a union family who has a strongly pro-labor voting record, came as a relief to some liberals who had grown slightly anxious about Obama's commitment to organized labor's agenda. "She's an inspired choice from a working-class background, who represented a working-class district with middle-class sensibilities," said AFL-CIO legislative director Bill Samuels.

But many of Obama's other picks reflect his apparent preference for practical-minded centrists who have straddled big policy debates rather than staking out the strongest pro-reform positions. Their reputations as moderates have won Obama plaudits from even some Republicans, but the choices offer relatively few clues to his plans in certain key areas.

"He's clearly been under great pressure to satisfy any number of constituencies, and to a certain extent, these appointments are prisms through which you can see what you want," said Paul C. Light of New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service and a contributor to The Washington Post. "But at some point there will be tough decisions to make, and some of these Cabinet members are going to have to choose, and we'll see how that plays out."

Peter Wehner, a former senior adviser to President Bush, warned that placing too much emphasis on pragmatism could leave the Obama team rudderless and without intellectual cohesion. "Pragmatism has its place, but there are limits, as well," said Wehner, now a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "If you aren't anchored to a political philosophy, you get blown about, and government becomes ad hoc and you make it up as you go -- and if you're not careful, you begin to go in circles."

Obama's choice for education secretary, Chicago schools chief executive Arne Duncan, has kept a foot in both camps of the education reform debate, and his pick for interior secretary, Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), was welcomed by industry groups reassured by his support for expanded offshore drilling.

Obama's selection for agriculture secretary, former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack (D), is another case in point. Vilsack's nomination was cheered by groups representing big agricultural interests, which praise him for his support of biotechnology and subsidies for corn-based ethanol. "He understands the reality of producing food and energy today," said Craig Lang, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau. "I think he'll try to strike a chord somewhere in the middle."

But Vilsack also won praise from groups such as the Center for Rural Affairs, based in Nebraska, which seeks to shift federal support away from corporations and big farms to smaller, family-owned operations. "He has demonstrated an understanding . . . that agriculture policy isn't working, that it's devastating family farms and failing to invest in our communities," said the center's director, Chuck Hassebrook.

To the most aggressive advocates for change in the course of government, Obama's preference for centrists such as Vilsack who are amenable to rival camps is a discouraging sign that the status quo will prevail. "His appointments indicate small change," said Ronnie Cummins, director of the Organic Consumers Association. "The latest polls show that 60 percent of Americans say we're in serious straits and need some major changes . . . but he's going to have to be pushed if we're going to see anything other than small change."

Obama has signaled more ambitious plans with his picks in other areas, notably health care and energy. But it remains unclear just where the real centers of power will reside, given that he has added several key new staff positions to his White House team, suggesting that he will continue the decades-long trend of White House advisers asserting more authority over Cabinet departments.

Thomas A. Daschle, a former Senate majority leader, is expected to take the lead in pushing universal health care -- Obama has named him not only the head of the Health and Human Services Department but also leader of a new White House Office of Health Reform. But will Daschle assert himself on domestic policy beyond health care?

The purview of Obama's Domestic Policy Council, to be led by Melody C. Barnes, a former aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, is another question mark, particularly given that there will be highly credentialed individuals steering the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development. What will be left for Obama's new White House Office of Urban Policy, to be run by the president of New York's Bronx borough?


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