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December 19th, 2008
06:21 PM ET

The Obama Cabinet – most promising in decades?

Editor's Note: Don't forget to watch CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen talk further about President-elect Obama's cabinet tonight on AC360° at 10 p.m. ET.

David Gergen | BIO
AC360° Contributor
CNN Senior Political Analyst

With the final pieces falling into place today, a much clearer picture has emerged of the men and women who will gather around the table when Barack Obama convenes his new cabinet in Washington. By any measure, this cabinet will be one of the most pragmatic, talented, and politically experienced of any in recent decades - the makings of a dream team. Even so, some serious questions remain about how effective they will be – questions that can only be answered by the passage of time.

Altogether, Obama will have some 21 people at his cabinet table – himself, his vice president, his White House chief of staff, the heads of 15 executive departments, as well as the heads of the Office of Management and Budget, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Trade Representative. Whether he will invite others to the table such as his “czars” is still unclear.

But we do know now the identity now of the first 21, and one thing that stands out – especially in the political tug of war between left and right – is how centrist and pragmatic most of them are, especially in the areas of economics and national security. For weeks Washington has been wondering whether Obama would govern from the center-left or from the left. His appointments suggest that on a few issues, he will please the liberal elements of his base – global warming and unionization – but on most others, he will be more of a moderate progressive. That’s what he promised during the campaign, and that is what he is delivering in his appointments.

Beyond a diversity of race, gender and ethnicity – something we saw with the early Clinton and Bush appointees, too - there will be a decidedly Midwestern flavor to Obama’s cabinet conversations. No less than seven of his appointees were raised in the Midwest, compared to 5 from the East Coast and four from the West. (Surprisingly, he has recruited only one Southerner, the former mayor of Dallas.)

Obama has also sought out a team that is more highly educated than any in recent years. No less than 19 of the 21 have graduate degrees. Four have PhDs (Stephen Chu, Robert Gates, Susan Rice and Peter Orszag,; if Larry Summers is at the table, that would make five). Seven were educated in the Ivy League. And one, of course, has a Nobel prize in science – a first for a presidential cabinet (Chu in physics).

When some praised the early Obama choices as “the best and brightest”, New York Times columnist Frank Rich properly recalled that the phrase is actually one of opprobrium from the Vietnam War, blaming advisers of elite educations for getting us into a quagmire. House Speaker Sam Rayburn complained about John Kennedy’s team that “I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

A fair criticism then but not now. It is striking that in selecting people of intellectual distinction, Obama has also woven into his team the greatest political experience of any cabinet in memory. No less than five of the men and women at the table will have served in the U.S. Senate (Obama, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Ken Salazar); four have been in the House (Rahm Emmanuel, Bill Richardson, Ray LaHood, Hilda Solis); three have been governors (Janet Napolitano, Tom Vilsack, Bill Richardson), and one was a big city mayor (Ron Kirk). In short, 12 of 21 will have successfully run for far more than sheriff.

Does this array of talent and experience ensure success? Not at all. For starters, there are also some holes in this team. Presidents normally look for cabinet officers among leaders who have run big organizations because most executive departments are huge. With the economy sinking and reputations shredded on Wall Street, it is not surprising that Obama hasn’t filled his cabinet with CEOs but not even one? There are some with serious experience in running things – Bob Gates, retired General Eric Shinski and the governors among them. Overall, however, the Obama team is light on administrative experience. They may be great at making policy but will they be good at execution?

Given his campaign promises of post-partisanship, one might have expected Obama to appoint more than two Republicans, especially since Gates may be leaving soon and LaHood is in a transportation department that rarely has a strong voice. Whether his appointments and his governing approach will be enough to forge ties with the GOP – and whether they are prepared to grant him a real honeymoon – is yet to be seen.

Finally, veterans of past White Houses are also raising eyebrows over the number of “czars” popping up at the White House. Tom Daschle will wear two hats – one as HHS Secretary, the other as White House czar – and as such, he should be in an excellent position to lead the fight for health care reform. But cabinet officers in the areas of economics, energy, the environment, agriculture may struggle for power with “czars” at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

In short, Obama must still prove that his roster of all stars will become an effective working team. The early months of his presidency will be crucial for him. But overall, it can and should be said that at a full month before his inauguration, he has chosen one of the most promising cabinets in decades.

soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Maria from Plano, TX

    things can only get better lets pray that this team is the right one to make that happen :)

    December 19, 2008 at 8:26 pm |
  2. Sam Brown

    I just hope that the American people understand that it took eight years of W's leadership to get us to this point and that it will take some time to clean up this mess. America will return to respectability under President Obama.

    December 19, 2008 at 8:20 pm |
  3. Chip

    It doesn't really matter much who Obama assembles on his cabinet or what he does.
    In 8 years, a GOP candidate will be elected, start a new war and undo all the success Obama can attain.
    Obama could lead this nation to its greatest prosperity it has ever seen, and still 40+% of Americans would hate him and want to see him removed.
    He could become an adored world hero, and there would still be 40+% of Americans who would do all they could to humiliate him in front of the whole world.
    Don't believe it? Just ask Bill Clinton.

    December 19, 2008 at 8:14 pm |
  4. Alex (Aliso Viejo)

    The cabinet team is impressive along with their resumes. Of course, high expectations for an A-Class performance cannot be helped but to be expected. A room full of opinion and strong-will can be difficult but I trust President-Elect Obama's organizational and leadership skill to shine trough. I believe President-Elect Obama did not choose them solely based on their merits but their passion for their respective duties to bring about a better America. When handled right, President-Elect Obama is in possession an extra-ordinary almanac. Yum!!! I just can't wait. If you ask me who am I most curious among the cabinet member's thoughts and performance, I would say Mr. Chu specially against the big oil companies.

    December 19, 2008 at 7:55 pm |
  5. Ron from Dallas, TX

    Obama has a better grasp of economic reality, compared to Bush. I still remember the puzzled look on Bush's face when he was first questioned about gas prices reaching four dollars per gallon. And all his comments about the economy hitting a few "bumps" in the road. While all the time the economy had gone off the road, and rolled over many times, landing in a ditch. I can't wait for him to vacate an office he has brought such low ratings, and repect to, around the world.

    December 19, 2008 at 7:50 pm |
  6. Barbara

    I am full of hope for the Obama administration. I feel like we are emerging from the dark into most welcome light.

    December 19, 2008 at 7:48 pm |
  7. Nate, NM

    I'm so glad that the president-elect is surrounding himself with people who have different views than himself. This is going to be a promising cabinet.

    December 19, 2008 at 7:47 pm |
  8. Flo

    I am encouraged by PEBO selections and applaud him for taking the time to think about his appointments. What I don't get is all the critisim he has received in the past days for Rick Warren. I'm disappointed in people like Barney Frank for injecting politics in this issue, why is Mr. Frank offended. BO has the right to invite anyone he choose to pray on his special day and the public need to find another topic to challenge him on. The opposition in my opinion is over the top. Live and Let Live..........................

    December 19, 2008 at 7:37 pm |
  9. Cindy

    At the end of the campaign Obama had moved more to the center and agreed on more with McCain on a lot of issues, so I am not surprised at all now that he is sticking with that spot and choosing people for his cabinet that fit there also.

    As to how they will do...like Gerg said only time will tell. They all may be highly educated and served the country but that doesn't mean that they will get in there and do wonders and have an excellent track record. We will have to all wait and see about that.

    Cindy...Ga.

    December 19, 2008 at 6:41 pm |
  10. Larry from Georgetown, Tx

    They better be the best of the best. This is what it will take to even start correcting the mess that W. has left behind.

    December 19, 2008 at 6:31 pm |