After a masterful campaign, Barack Obama seems headed toward some fateful mistakes as he assembles his administration by heeding the advice of Washington’s Democratic insider community, a collective group that represents little “change you can believe in.”
Some of President-elect Obama’s emerging miscues also parallel misjudgments that Bill Clinton made 16 years ago when his administration got off to a stumbling start because he sometimes placed politics and diversity over appointing the best qualified people.
According to widespread press reports, Obama is on the verge of naming Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State (although foreign policy is not her strong suit) and keeping on Republican Defense Secretary Robert Gates (as a gesture of bipartisan continuity).
Though Washington’s insider community is applauding, the personnel moves represent strange choices at a moment when Obama may have his best shot at taking decisive action to move the country in a new direction.
Regarding Secretary of State, Obama has two strong alternate choices – Sen. John Kerry and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson – who are both deeply knowledgeable about the intricacies of foreign policy. They also don’t carry Sen. Clinton’s baggage of former President Clinton’s financial conflicts of interest strewn around the world.
Plus, Kerry and Richardson have been more in line with Obama on withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq than Sen. Clinton, who supported George W. Bush’s war and occupation almost until the eve of the Democratic primary campaign.
If Obama wants to give Sen. Clinton a high-profile Cabinet post, there are other options, too. She would be a much better fit for Secretary of Homeland Security, since she was a senator from New York at the time of 9/11 and is well versed in what must be done to protect the nation from another terrorist attack.
A major success of the Clinton years also was a well-run Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is now part of Homeland Security. FEMA is in desperate need of another overhaul after eight years of Bush administration incompetence – and the Clinton team has demonstrated that it knows how to do that.
Obama could achieve the bipartisan continuity that he desires by keeping on current Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff for a transition period, a move that makes more sense than leaving Gates at the Pentagon.
Having an extended transition at Homeland Security might give the nation an added measure of protection, since the biggest national security threat during Obama’s first months may be another terrorist attack. There has been a pattern of terrorists exploiting government handovers, in 1993 with the first Twin Towers bombing and in 2001 with 9/11.
As for Kerry and Richardson, both have strong foreign-policy credentials.
Kerry has been steeped in key foreign policy issues since his days as a young Navy officer in Vietnam who returned from the war to lead a veterans group seeking peace. He also took the lead in investigating illegal foreign operations by the Reagan administration and has been an articulate voice on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Richardson, the nation’s most prominent Hispanic politician, served on the House Intelligence Committee and was not only Energy Secretary under President Clinton but handled complex negotiations with hostile nations, such as North Korea, in line with Obama’s determination to talk with enemies.
A Kerry/Richardson tandem at State – with one as Secretary and the other as a powerful Under Secretary – could let the Obama administration hit the ground running on transforming U.S. foreign policy while Obama focuses on the economic crisis.
Obama could show, too, that he values loyalty. Kerry, the Democratic standard-bearer in 2004, was an early Obama supporter. Richardson, after dropping out of the 2008 race, absorbed personal attacks from the Clinton camp (called a “Judas” by James Carville) for endorsing Obama.
Hillary Clinton would face a steep learning curve at State. She also would be tempted to hire a cadre of Clinton loyalists and thus establish a competing center of power versus Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is expected to want a piece of the foreign-policy portfolio.
The retention of Defense Secretary Gates represents another example of advice derived from Washington’s clubby conventional wisdom.
The boyish-looking Gates is a favorite of accommodating Democrats, such as former Rep. Lee Hamilton and former Sen. David Boren. But Gates has a long record of both loyalty to the Bush Family and opportunism putting his career ahead of what’s best for the country. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “The Danger of Keeping Robert Gates.”]
Over the past two years, Gates has been a key implementer of President Bush’s Iraq War “surge” – after Gates replaced Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had opposed the escalation. Gates, whose career has often reflected neoconservative positions, also has decried Obama’s plan for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops.
So it makes little sense to think that Gates will be particularly helpful in reversing policies that he helped put into place. More likely, Gates, who is known for effectively playing the news media, would be a stay-behind Republican eager to undercut Obama’s Iraq War troop draw-down.
If anything went wrong, Gates could leak to the press how Obama messed up gains achieved by President Bush.
At the Pentagon, Obama also has better options than Gates. If Obama wants bipartisanship, he could offer the job to Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who joined Obama in criticizing Bush’s conduct of the war and went on an important fact-finding trip with Obama to the Middle East in summer 2008.
Hagel showed political courage, too, in working with Democrats on legislation seeking a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, angering his GOP Senate colleagues as well as a sitting Republican President.
Another problem with the Hillary-for-State/Gates-for-Defense concept is that it is reminiscent of a major weakness of the Clinton administration, a combination of listening to the tired old Democratic insiders and making too-clever-by-half calculations.
After defeating George H.W. Bush in 1992, Bill Clinton was persuaded by the don’t-rock-the-boat Democrats (the likes of Lee Hamilton and David Boren) not to press ahead with investigations into Reagan-Bush-era wrongdoing.
Sweeping the Iran-Contra/Iraqgate crimes under the rug was considered a Democratic gesture of bipartisanship, but it allowed Republicans to write a favorable history of those 12 years and lay the groundwork for a swift GOP comeback in 1994 -- and the tainted victory of George W. Bush in 2000. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Obama: Beware the Lessons of ’93.”]
Bill Clinton’s insistence on appointing the first woman Attorney General led him to another series of missteps. His first choices were disqualified by controversies over household help, leading Clinton to settle on Janet Reno, arguably one of his worst Cabinet picks.
Over the next eight years, Reno failed to defend the administration against a series of politically motivated Republican investigations that hobbled Clinton’s presidency and further paved the way for the GOP comeback.
Despite that troubling history, Obama has surrounded himself with former Clinton insiders, including Clinton’s former chief of staff John Podesta heading up the transition team and former Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel as the new White House chief of staff.
So not surprisingly, Obama is hearing advice about the political benefits of giving Hillary Clinton the Cabinet’s most prestigious job, Secretary of State, and acquiescing to the advice of Democratic old hands in Washington about keeping on one of their favorite Republicans at Defense, Robert Gates.
Many of these same Democrats are repeating the advice, too, about avoiding battles over accountability – this time, for the crimes of George W. Bush’s presidency.
This mix of political over-thinking and disregard for truth suggests that Obama might end up opting less for real change than for more of the same – from the Clinton years.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on November 17, 2008.