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Cabinet Work

I was asked a while ago what I thought of Barack Obama’s designated Cabinet. As I’ve been the one hocking about the importance of a President being surrounded by good people rather than by a secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents, I suppose it’s a reasonable thing to expect me to pass judgment on this crew. So. Here we are, and I am indebted again the the CQ cabinet watch for the list and certain insights. I’m going alphabetically, and shallowly. Remember, these are the initial reactions of a blogger who has not been paying close attention recently.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack There seem to be two reasonable reactions to this choice. First is to point out that only Nixon could go to China, and that perhaps only Tom Vilsack can battle King Corn. The other reaction is Yyyyyyiccch. I lean to the second. CQ had not put the Governor on their short list; Our Incoming President could, it seems, have done worse.

Attorney General Eric Holder I don’t have much feeling about Mr. Holder, who seems qualified. He doesn’t seem to be a crusader, but there’s no obvious evidence that he is an incompetent or a crook.

Secretary of Commerce Bill Richardson, of course, was Our Incoming President’s choice, and although I yield to no-one in my admiration and fondness for Gov. Richardson, that appears to be because there’s no need to yield. Not really a traffic jam at the intersection of fondness and admiration in Bill Richardson Square, is there? It’s still possible that Austin Goolsbee will slip into the Cabinet here, and I would just like to point out that (a) I once attempted to rhyme Austin Goolsbee’s name in a song, and (2) I’m fairly sure that in four years on the APDA circuit together, we never once were placed in the same round.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates Meh. I see the point of it, of course, and I should probably point out that Secretary Gates is not, by all available evidence, a member of the s.c. of c.&i., but I have to say I would have preferred somebody else there. It is my hope that after overseeing a withdrawal of combat troops from Iraq, handing over the permanent military installations to the Iraqis and pigs flying in formation around HappyLand’s Cloud Palace, Secretary Gates retires to spend more time writing his bitter, rueful memoirs.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan The advantage of a hoops-buddy of OIP being given charge of education is that it is likely that issues at the department will be brought to his attention with some frequency. On the other hand, I don’t see that Mr. Duncan will have much clout. On the other other hand, I’d just as soon see federal interference in local school retreat for a little while, other than just handing over great big overflowing buckets of money. We still do that, right?

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu The only question I have is whether Mr. Chu will have the political chops to get things done. I’ve never heard anything bad about the man, and symbolically speaking it’s a wonderful choice, but not only is the Secretary of Energy going to be busier than a one-legged man in a four year ass-kicking contest, the Secretary of Energy is going to be in an ass-kicking contest over the next four years, and I just hope he’s got good shoes. And two legs.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Daschle I don’t much like Tom Daschle, but certainly OIP signals with this appointment that he is serious about reforming the way we pay for health insurance and health care. A strong choice, and that’s a good thing, and a choice that shows (unsurprisingly) a respect for legislation and legislators and the legislative process, which may work well since whatever happens will have to get through the Congress.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano Meh, Meh. I’m not convinced that her heart is in the right place. In my secret heart of hearts, I cherish the delusion that OIP will abolish the DHS, which was a terrible idea and should be recognized as a panicky power-grab with disastrous consequences. Admittedly, there’s never been any inkling whatsoever that OIP recognizes that, and this choice fits into the mainstream of thought on the topic, rather than my own comfy fringe.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan I’m a big believer in the federal role in Housing and in Urban Development, so there’s a sense in which I’d love to have seen him give the thing to Barney Frank, along with enough real power and money to tempt him to take it, but as that was just never going to happen, I don’t mind giving it to a successful bureaucrat with an architecture degree. I haven’t seen Big Ideas about Housing from OIP, but then I haven’t been looking.

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar The worst thing about Sen. Salazar is that he was part of the Gang of Fourteen Assholes. That’s bad enough.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis She’s a fine symbolic choice, and I don’t have any question about her being good in the position, neither a crook nor an incompetent. On the other hand, I’d love to see somebody with serious clout in this position, somebody who knows where the bodies are buried, someone like Dick Gephardt. On the other other hand, the problem with picking people with clout is that it prevents fine symbolic choices who are also perfectly good picks.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton This choice of course has expanded to fill all available conversational space, and I don’t really have anything to add to what’s been said. I still don’t understand why she wants to do this job, but good luck to her.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood Another symbolic appointment, and although I would love love love to see somebody truly powerful and connected here, I am reasonable. It’s not a bad choice, all things considered, although part of the symbolism is that OIP doesn’t think the Department of Transportation is at all important. Sigh.

Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner No surprises here. Nothing particular to say, except that it is unfair the extent to which I suspect that he will turn out to be both a crook and an incompetent. No basis for it, other than the whole Kissinger and Associates, IMF, Citigroup stuff. Which ain’t beans. In fact, you know how four years ago, I said that one way to distinguish between candidates for the nomination was to ask yourself which ones would nominate a Jack Snow? Tim Geithner strikes me as Jack Snow. I hope I’m wrong.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki Knockout choice. Talk about an ass-kicker. This choice (and Gen. Shinseki’s agreement to it) showed OIP’s imagination, persuasiveness and smarts. The question of course is whether those things will do much good, but it’s still kinda nice to see them.

Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Lisa P. Jackson Jersey in the House? Say Yo! Seriously, what they hell is with EPA and New Jersey? And is it clear that serious Environmental Policy (that is, everything relating to climate change) (that is, everything) is not going to be in her hands?

Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orszag In case it hasn’t been absolutely clear, this is yet another signal that OIP wants to work with the legislature, and with people who work with the legislature. That’s a good thing. And this guy seems honest enough, for an economist.

Trade Representative Ron Kirk Hey, he’s the black Jack Snow! No, that’s totally unfair, but seriously, this is not a guy I want to be in the room when the economic policies get made. Not a crook, not an incompetent, he’s a pro-business Democrat who lobbies for energy companies. Again, I hope I’m wrong about this guy.

Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice Seems fine. Not a crook, not an incompetent, and (importantly) not a loose cannon. I’d rather have a negotiator (since the Secretary of State will not be one), but that’s my preference, not OIP’s.

Director of National Drug Control Policy Did you know the Drug Czar gets to be in the Cabinet? That’s just crazy.

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel Never say anything bad about Rahm Emanuel.

Vice President Joe Biden Nine months ago, I didn’t like Joe Biden; he was one of the guys way down low on my list of Good Democratic Senators. And I’m still cross about the Bankruptcy Bill. But he’s grown on me, and I like the idea of him sitting in on important policy meetings.

So. To sum up. I’m not knocked out by most of the choices. He’s put his most powerful people in Health, State, Defense and Agriculture. I’m focused on Energy, Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. That doesn’t mean that nothing will get done in those areas; remember that Our Erstwhile President chose Rod Paige as Secretary of Education and pushed through a huge (and devastating) change in our elementary education system.

By the way, when CQ went and gathered short lists of three for each of seventeen chairs, they wound up including the eventual choice in only seven of those lists. What that says to me is that either Congressional Quarterly are totally out of touch (which is possible, but not terribly likely) or that Barack Obama made up his appointments with an eye toward something different than the CQ informers were thinking. I suspect that much of the difference in thinking was that Barack Obama is unusually focused on making a cabinet that he believes will work well with the Congress, specifically with the Senate.

On the other hand, there are people who could well come out of the Cabinet and run for Governor or Senator (I’m thinking Hilda Solis, Shaun Donovan, Arne Duncan, Lisa Jackson, even Steven Chu) if there’s an opening there. It’s not a group of elder statesmen or ivory tower academics and authors. And certainly I don’t think that he’s gathering a secretive cabal of crooks and incompetents. It’s a perfectly reasonable Cabinet for a man who has been positioning himself as a perfectly reasonable President. Can he achieve greatness by making that greatness seem perfectly reasonable?

… we’ll see, won’t we? But I don’t think anybody’s ever gone broke through overestimating Barack Obama.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I believe there is some sense in which Barack Obama can already be said to have achieved greatness by seeming perfectly reasonable, but maybe that's just me.


If you have 14 minutes, you could do some worse than to watch this video (or leave it on in the background while you do dishes, since only the audio really matters), which is Steven Chu's bit in a series the transition website is doing where incoming Cabinet types respond to people's comments. Anyway, it increased my level of pleasedness with the decision because he's clearly smart (everyone said this already) but also knows what he wants to do, and knows how to explain his thing coherently to a lay audience. Is this a substitute for political chops? Grepped if i know, but i enjoyed watching the video.

mmm this feels very "on it."

(while flipping channels on the web last week i saw someone refer to OIP as "obigma.")

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