The Return of Debate?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, December 1, 2008; 12:54 PM

The way President-elect Barack Obama is assembling his brain trust doesn't just indicate a dramatic turn away from President Bush's policies. It also suggests the return of spirited policy debates to a White House that has been largely devoid of them for the last eight years.

Rather than simply hire a new brand of loyalists -- or replace one gut player with another -- Obama is making it clear that he wants his thinking challenged and wants to hear opposing views before he reaches his decisions. That would be a dramatic contrast to the intellectually incurious Bush, who so rarely ventured beyond his bubble of flatterers and yes-men.

Obama this morning introduced his national security team, which includes Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state, retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones Jr. as national security advisor, and Robert M. Gates, the Bush appointee who has agreed to stay on as defense secretary.

"I assembled this team because I am a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions. I believe that's how the best decisions are made," Obama said. "One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in group-think and everybody agrees with everything and there's no discussion and there are no dissenting views. So I am going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House.

"But understand, I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I will expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made . . . The buck will stop with me."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President-elect Barack Obama says he wants to lead an administration where strong-willed senior officials are ready to argue forcefully for differing points of view.

"It appears that in two months, he'll get his wish, and then some.

"Obama's new national security team is led by three veteran officials who have differed with each other -- and with the president-elect -- on the full menu of security issues, including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, nuclear weapons and Arab-Israel conflict."

Karen DeYoung wrote in Sunday's Washington Post that military leaders value Obama's "greater realism about U.S. military goals and capabilities, which many found lacking during the Bush years.

"'Open and serious debate versus ideological certitude will be a great relief to the military leaders,' said retired Maj. Gen. William L. Nash of the Council on Foreign Relations. Senior officers are aware that few in their ranks voiced misgivings over the Iraq war, but they counter that they were not encouraged to do so by the Bush White House or the Pentagon under Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"'The joke was that when you leave a meeting, everybody is supposed to drink the Kool-Aid,' Nash said. 'In the Bush administration, you had to drink the Kool-Aid before you got to go to the meeting.'"

Last week, upon announcing a new Economic Recovery Advisory Board to be led by former Fed chairman Paul Volcker, Obama directly addressed a president's need for people to keep him honest: "The reality is that sometimes policymaking in Washington can become too insular. The walls of the echo chamber can sometimes keep out fresh voices and new ways of thinking -- and those who serve in Washington don't always have a ground-level sense of which programs and policies are working for people, and which aren't. This board will provide that perspective to me and my Administration, with an infusion of ideas from across the country and from all sectors of our economy -- input that will be informed by members' first-hand observations of how our efforts are impacting the daily lives of our families."

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