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.
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?
On climate change, will the policy push be overseen more by Steven Chu, the nuclear physicist nominated to be energy secretary, or by Carol M. Browner, a close confidant of Al Gore's who served as head of the Environmental Protection Agency under Bill Clinton and who will serve in the new role of White House energy czar? Where will this leave Obama's EPA administrator, Lisa P. Jackson, and his head of the Council on Environmental Quality, Nancy Sutley?
Looming over everything is the question of how much authority over domestic policy will be exerted by the economic team, most notably Obama's strong-willed chief economic adviser, former Treasury secretary Lawrence H. Summers, and Paul A. Volcker, the former Federal Reserve chairman who will be leading a new economic advisory board.
Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he expects that Browner will take the lead on climate change, while Chu and other highly regarded scientists named to the administration will have plenty of say in debates with economic advisers. "It seems clear . . . that [Obama] understands that even a strong team needs a strong epicenter within the White House," he said of Browner. Chu's nomination, he added, appeared to "elevate science in the deliberations so it's an additional heavyweight player in the economic discussions."
The Cabinet nominees are a fairly diverse lot. There are five women, if one includes Jackson and Susan E. Rice, the nominee for U.N. ambassador, whose positions Obama considers Cabinet-rank. (Also named yesterday to head the sub-Cabinet Small Business Administration was Karen Mills, a Maine businesswoman.) There are three Hispanics, four African Americans and two Republicans -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Ray LaHood, a retiring Illinois congressman who was named yesterday to be secretary of transportation.
If there is a lack of diversity, it is in regional makeup. The only nominees with Southern roots are former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, named yesterday as trade representative, and Jackson, who grew up in New Orleans before settling in New Jersey. North Carolina political consultant Gary Pearce played this down, saying it may simply reflect a lack of candidates -- many Southern Democratic leaders were not avid Obama backers, and one obvious prospect, former North Carolina senator John Edwards, has been tarnished by scandal.
Perhaps more notable is the heavy representation of nominees from big cities or metro areas, a list that includes Kirk, Duncan, Solis, HUD pick Shaun Donovan and attorney general nominee Eric H. Holder Jr.
John Norquist, a former Milwaukee mayor and head of the Congress for the New Urbanism, said the prevalence of big-city nominees, along with the Chicago roots of Obama and his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, suggest that the country's big metro areas will be getting far more consideration. "You've got urban people in real positions of power, and I'm impressed with that," he said.
Light, at NYU, said the list is also notable for the number of people who have experience in the field to which they will be assigned, suggesting that Obama, for all his reverence for academic credentials, also holds in high regard individuals who, like him, entered the fray of public office. "There's a lot of street-level knowledge in this Cabinet," Light said. "It reflects a team-oriented approach: If you can shoot and make it, you're particularly valuable. This is a strong Cabinet in terms of actually handling the ball."
There are some exceptions, Light said, perhaps as a result of the pressures Obama felt to increase the Cabinet's diversity and reward supporters. New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, one of three Hispanic nominees, is not the most obvious fit for the Commerce Department, Light argued, and LaHood is not a noted authority on transportation.
Advocates who have hoped that Obama will undertake a major overhaul of transportation policy, with more emphasis on transit and rail, have expressed some disappointment about LaHood. While he has been a stronger supporter of Amtrak than many Republicans, he hails from the small city of Peoria, Ill., and so has had limited engagement with urban transit matters.
"He hasn't been one of the great, dashing figures in Congress on these issues," said Robert Yaro, president of the Regional Plan Association, an advocacy and planning group in the New York City area. "Among advocates there is disappointment, because the hope was we were going to get someone who was really going to be a leader in the field. . . . But obviously this is someone we can work with, and we'll do what we can."
Among many advocacy groups, the hope is that Obama's intentions will become clearer when he appoints the deputy secretaries and other high-level personnel who will implement many policies -- a group that will in all likelihood represent a sharp break from those it will be replacing in the Bush administration.
Until then, said Wehner, the former Bush aide, it will be hard to discern all the outlines of the Obama agenda. "They're smart, they're well-educated, they're the upper crust, but the question is, do the parts make a whole, or is the whole less than the sum of the parts?" he said of the incoming team. "As I said somewhere recently, I'd buy somebody a dinner at Le Cirque if someone could define what Obamaism is as a political philosophy. If you don't have a political North Star, you can lose your way, and I'm not sure if these people have it."