Editor’s Note: Trouble in Paradise

On a near-daily basis now, New York Times columnists and MSNBC anchors gush about Obama’s latest “inspired” or “statesmanlike” cabinet pick. But while the mainstream media’s love-fest continues unabated, the rest of us are left wondering why the new administration looks so much like the one that left office eight years ago. Indeed, it almost seems as if the Clinton bus got lost and took a detour through Chicago.

Of the selections announced or leaked thus far, a number are former Clinton appointees. Rahm Emanuel, now Chief of Staff, previously served as senior political adviser to Bill Clinton, earning a name for himself as a hot-headed, combative pol. Eric Holder, primed to become the next Attorney General, used to be Janet Reno’s deputy. He was also involved with the decision to pardon Marc Rich. New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, meanwhile, formerly served as both Ambassador to the UN and Secretary of Energy. He is allegedly Obama’s top choice for the Department of Commerce. Peter Orszag, slated to head up the OMB, was formerly senior adviser at the Council of Economic Advisers in the Clinton White House.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, needs no introduction.

Despite promises of a new, improved Washington, Obama seems to be reviving the old Democratic establishment. This fosters an odd dynamic, where the gospel of change meets the Clinton orthodoxy. Can the ‘church of liberalism’ accommodate both?

The media, of course, is already explaining this away as a Lincoln-esque stroke of brilliance. Citing Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” they assert that Obama is following in the 16th president’s footsteps, assembling a cabinet full of enemies—a scheme ostensibly designed for productive chaos.

Others, however, doubt the wisdom of such a plan. Matthew Pinsker, a civil war historian at Dickinson College, recently wrote in the LA Times that “Over the years, it has become easy to forget that hard edge and the once bad times that nearly destroyed a president. Lincoln’s Cabinet was no team. His rivals proved to be uneven as subordinates. Some were capable despite their personal disloyalty, yet others were simply disastrous.” Indeed, Lincoln only overcame these obstacles by becoming increasingly authoritative with his cabinet. In the end, it was Lincoln’s leadership, not his cabinet scheme, that ultimately produced success.

A more modern example also stresses caution: Jimmy Carter. Though not personal enemies of the president, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski loathed each other and clashed bitterly; Carter was often helpless in resolving their disputes. Consequently, American foreign policy took a tentative, meandering approach, partially dependant on which faction held the upper hand at any given moment.

The lesson, then, is that the president’s managerial abilities matter more than which competing egos he chooses to bring along with him. Thus, the question for Obama is whether or not he can establish himself as a firm leader, personnel issues notwithstanding.

Some point to the efficiency of his campaign as proof positive that he knows how to lead. But winning an election is far different from succeeding in office. Indeed, almost by definition, whoever runs a better campaign wins the presidency. Yet, clearly, not all presidencies are created equal. Take President Bush, for example. He is commonly derided as an incompetent fool (or worse), yet his 2004 campaign was a juggernaut of near-legendary proportions; it was the flashy, high-octane model of the campaign world. And look where that got him.

Thus, simply running a good campaign is no guarantee of success in office. And without David Plouffe calling the shots behind the scenes, Obama will have a tougher time managing personnel, policy, and persona.

The stakes, meanwhile, continue to rise.

At home, the financial crisis continues to spread with no end in sight. The Dow Jones has dropped to the 8,000 level, flirting with numbers not seen in a decade. Banking giant Citigroup is on the verge of implosion. And the Big Three car manufacturers, staring bankruptcy in the eyes, are pleading for a bailout of their own.

Things are hardly better overseas, as foreign leaders have already begun to challenge the American president-elect. The day after Obama’s election, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave a speech promising to install short-range missiles near the Polish border—an act meant to dissuade America from extending its missile defense shield. And as if a conflict over Eastern Europe wasn’t enough, Medvedev recently embarked on a trip to Latin America, complete with stops to Cuba and Venezuela.

The Middle East isn’t much better, even putting Iraq and Afghanistan aside. In Al Qaeda’s latest video, second-in-command Ayman al-Zawahiri lambasts the president-elect, calling him a “house negro” with a hateful heart. But Al-Qaeda’s ‘attack ad’ is far from the only concern; US analysts now believe that Iran may have enough enriched uranium to build its first atom bomb. How Obama will respond to this threat is far from clear. On the campaign trail, his typical response was the obvious point that an Iranian nuke would be “a game-changer.” Let’s hope his real plan consists of more substance and fewer pithy truisms.

Thus, while the media joyously proclaims Obama a savior ready to shepherd us to earthly paradise, we find ourselves in a situation that looks less like tropical bliss and more like the edge of a precipice. And now we must count on an untested leader and his experimental “team of rivals” to stay on solid ground.

Was this really the change we needed?

Best,

Carl

Subscribe to the Stanford Review