Two interesting and important political transitions were announced this week: Sylvia Mathews Burwell as the nominee to replace Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Stephen Colbert to replace David Letterman.
The White House spin around Burwell is true; she is the best manager I have ever seen in government and the non-profit sector. I have observed her in two White Houses and two leading foundations, Gates and Walmart, and she knows how to run complex organizations within politically-charged environments. She’s tough, focused on outcomes, and people love working for her. If Obamacare were listed on an exchange, I would be buying it today. There is no one more capable of implementing it.
Colbert may be the harder and more interesting transition. CBS is, in effect, placing an unknown in one of the most coveted chairs on television. The only Colbert character we have ever known is being killed off in favor of the new show; he has made it clear he is dropping his faux conservative schtick. How will the “real” one play?
This move strikes me as an audacious one for Colbert and the network. Colbert’s appeal has been as a brilliant satirist of politics, mostly of the right-wing variety. His speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner in 2006 was the most brutal verbal assault on a president that I have ever seen. It’s worth watching again to see Colbert’s brand of political criticism. Yes, he is “in character,” but one can’t help but think this routine, like many others, reflects his beliefs.
The 11:30 hour of television has belonged to hosts whose political commentary was much more muted and bipartisan. In the end, Colbert may be a more significant and better appointment for Democrats than Burwell. Burwell and Colbert may be a one two punch for Democrats: Burwell resolves a liability for Democrats and Colbert becomes even more of one for Republicans.