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Legacy Content / OFF TO THE RACES

Obama's Steady Hand

By Recruiting The Most Experienced Staffers, The President-Elect Is Showing The Same Deliberateness He Did On The Campaign Trail

November 18, 2008

It has often and quite appropriately been said that campaign skills do not necessarily translate into governing skills, but it is also true that the personal traits one demonstrates day in and day out are enduring.

Much of the skepticism, including often in this column, to former Sen. Barack Obama's bid for the presidency was built around what was said to be a thin resume.

He began his campaign just two years removed from the Illinois state Senate and will have just four years experience in Washington or, for that matter, statewide office when he takes the presidential oath of office Jan. 20.

 

But during this just-concluded campaign, President-elect Obama demonstrated a focus and discipline, with an unparalleled level of caution and deliberation. Everything seemed to be considered from every angle before decisions were made, the emphasis always seemed to be on planning and reasoning over instinct.

Indeed, it was the rookie Obama who showed the steadier hand in the days following the financial meltdown in September, not the old pro, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a veteran of 26 years of congressional service.

Throughout the campaign, despite the fact that every other contender for the Democratic nomination had more political and governmental experience, Obama seemed the most unflappable.

With the sole exception of his infamous "bitter" statement at a San Francisco fundraiser, Obama was like the political equivalent of a mountain goat, with every step planted exactly where he wanted it to go, and never a misstep.

Many are taking note of, indeed castigating Obama, for selecting many veterans of the Clinton administration and other governmental "retreads," as well as his obvious consideration of even more.

It's as if there was already a hostile takeover of his administration or he was being taken captive by infidels or that his picks demonstrate nothing short of hypocrisy.

Typical is the New York Times' Maureen Dowd's observation that "the man who vowed to deliver us from 28 years of Bushes and Clintons has been stocking up on Clintonites."

But think of it. For every position, Obama has only so many options.

First, he could pick someone with executive branch experience during the last eight years of this Bush administration.

Second, he could pick someone who had experience from the eight years (1993-2001) of the Clinton administration.

Third, someone from the 12 years of the Reagan and previous Bush administrations (1981-1993) or perhaps a vet of the Carter administration (1977-1981).

Then there is also the option of someone with no executive branch experience, but with either legislative or judicial branch experience.

Or even someone with state or local government experience, or with expertise in the non-governmental sector or, presumably, someone with no experience at all.

But it's usually right that the most relevant experience for the White House is of the federal variety, and presumably a new president would want someone with the most applicable qualifications possible, and certainly more from their own party than the other, though not exclusively.

So why pick so many Clinton administration veterans? That's where the experienced Democrats are.

That doesn't make them indentured servants to the Clinton family. Many high-ranking Obama supporters and operatives, indeed some of his earliest staff members, were veterans of the Clinton campaigns and administration. Whether someone is a Democrat, independent or Republican, or whether they backed Obama or not, most Americans should hope that he succeeds.

What people should find hopeful is that the sure-footedness, the very deliberate nature that he exemplified during the campaign is likely to carry over after Jan. 20.

The piece that Obama lacked, extensive federal and international experience, he seems to be counteracting by working hard to put together one of the most tenured White House teams in memory.

Obama's chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., was a senior White House adviser for most of the Clinton administration before becoming an investment banker and serving in Congress, most of the time in party leadership.

Vice President-elect Joe Biden's chief of staff, Ron Klain, is an experienced congressional hand who was also former Vice President Al Gore's top aide. Reading the biographical sketches of others picked so far, it's a pretty impressive slate.

New presidents always make mistakes; everyone does. But the durations of honeymoons are determined by the performance of those administrations -- it's those new governments that often abbreviate their own grace periods.

It was stepping immediately into the controversy over gays in the military and the ill-fated nominations of Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood to be attorney general that exposed the brand-new Clinton administration to charges of amateurism.

There is no question Obama has his work cut out for him. Few new presidents have faced such enormous challenges as he will face, given the global economic decline and state of war.

But his personal style, the experience of the team he is putting together and the reservoir of goodwill he enjoys certainly gives him a leg up to succeed.

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