Obama brings change to Washington by stocking his cabinet with lifelong Washington insiders. Wait, what?
After he waged a campaign built around a stirring message of change, many of President-elect Obama's supporters expected him to begin stocking his administration with passionate progressives bristling to challenge the status quo. Conservatives anticipated something akin to the second coming of the New Deal.
Neither scenario has materialized.
At the quarter point in the transition process, Obama has surrounded himself with a cadre of seasoned political operatives and Clinton administration veterans known more for their expertise than ideology. Beltway savvy and centrist policy chops have, so far, trumped partisanship.
Some of this is to be expected, as Obama's team shifts from the frenetic pace of a presidential campaign to the more deliberate realm of governing.
And remember that as a candidate, Obama portrayed himself as a new breed of politician capable of transcending traditional political fault lines.
But the selection of so many centrist insiders has skeptics wondering whether the idealistic ex-community organizer is capable of backing up his promises to shake up Washington and promote a more activist government.
"When you look at him, you see a person who's very cautious, who hasn't involved himself in a lot of big issues in Congress but on the other hand, has a background that's hard left. It's not clear whether he wants to be Tony Blair or Juan Peron," said Myron Ebell, a policy analyst at the conservative Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Of course, there's a lot of political real estate between Blair, the former British prime minister, and Peron, the socialist Argentinian leader.
Not Like 1993 The difficulty in pinning down the part of the political spectrum from which Obama will govern shows, experts say, that he is being careful not to repeat the mistakes former President Bill Clinton made during his 1992 transition.
By building his administration from the inside out and focusing on filling key White House positions like the chief-of-staff, counsel and his senior advisers, he will have a brain trust that can help guide remaining personnel decisions, alert him to potential conflicts and even begin moving an agenda.
Clinton, in contrast, focused on selecting nominees for his Cabinet and filled out most of his White House staff at the last minute. That created a steep learning curve and the prospect for miscues, such as when Clinton nominated Zoe Baird to be his attorney general without knowing that her husband had employed undocumented workers. The ensuing embarrassing headlines dominated the news for more than a week, including on the day of Clinton's inauguration.
Clinton ended up needing three tries to get the attorney general choice done right in 1993.
Parsing the Early Picks Political scientists who study presidential transitions say the most obvious thing to be gleaned from Obama's selections is that he prizes trust and an individual's ability to deliver.
Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, the tenacious Illinois congressman and former Clinton administration political director, combines an under-the-hood knowledge of campaigns with experience shaping health and tax policy on the Ways and Means Committee.
Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, tapped to head the Deaprtment of Health and Human Services, was an early supporter of Obama's who knows how to let negotiations play themselves out, then stand pat until his top priorities are addressed.
Obama's roster is populated with other such inside players, many with Ivy League credentials and impressive resumes like ex-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder (attorney general), former Clinton impeachment lawyer Gregory Craig (White House counsel), Congressional Budget Office Director Peter Orszag (budget director) and Obama's Senate staff director, Pete Rouse (senior adviser).
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Obama's rumored choice for secretary of state, can hardly be lumped with the loyalists but is a world figure and could be expected to be a tough negotiator who could advance the new president's interests with the global community.
Obama's supporters "voted for somebody they thought was going to bring a different tone to Washington and make use of people not in terms of their partisanship but in terms of what they can bring to an issue, and he's set out to do that," said Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project, an academic think tank that assists the incoming president and his transition team.
Another trait on display is discipline.
Obama has been scrupulous about not dabbling in policymaking before he is sworn in.
He avoided the G20 economic summit President Bush organized in Washington the weekend of Nov. 14 and 15, instead sending former Clinton Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and ex-Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa, to gather input from world leaders.
The message was clear: Obama will make commitments and offer input only when he's ready.
"He didn't get lured into a trap, even though the press and some economists were saying he had to move fast and get involved to address the serious problems," said Stephen Hess, senior fellow emeritus at the Brookings Institution and an adviser to former Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter. "What emerges from this is a cool, disciplined person who spent just enough time in the Senate to understand Washington and is surrounding himself with experienced people who know how to get things done."
The downside to this low-key approach is Obama will have to tamp down the expectations of the myriad left-leaning interest groups that supported him. Experts predict he will acknowledge these groups' concerns by issuing executive orders and directives on matters such as union political activities while keeping his larger focus on the economy and devising solutions that don't appear to be tinged by politics.
"People are always going to think he'll do what they're expecting him to do, and see the rightness of their cause," Kumar said. "But he comes into a situation everyone views as critical. He'll have to convince people he can't handle everything and will have to put some items on the side so he can deal with economy. Reagan was able to do that. He came in during a period of high unemployment and inflation and was able to tell the social conservatives they'd have to wait."