President-elect Barack Obama (center) during his first press conference, in Chicago, following his election victory, Nov. 7, 2008.

President-elect Barack Obama (center) during his first press conference, in Chicago, following his election victory, Nov. 7, 2008.

It’s proving difficult to peer inside Obama’s still tightly closed Cabinet. But so far his presidential transition has looked deliberate and impressive.

Nov. 11, 2008 | Amid the fervid speculation over the identity of the next secretary of state or even the next assistant secretary of labor for administration and management, there is a truth that is galling to gossip-mongers — Barack Obama and his closest advisors know how to keep secrets. With nearly 10 percent of the transition period between administrations already gone, we know more about the factors that will dictate the selection of the White House puppy than we do about the reasoning behind the choice of a would-be Treasury secretary.

As Valerie Jarrett, co-chair of Obama’s transition team, put it with deliberate blandness on “Meet the Press” Sunday: “I think one of the real strengths of Sen. Obama’s campaign and now President-elect Obama’s transition is that he really does like to think this through thoroughly and not telecast what he’s going to do until he’s ready to make a decision.”

No one wants to read articles titled “Entire Obama Administration Shrouded in Mist and Mystery.” So to accentuate the positive, we do have a pretty reliable handle as to who will be in the room with Obama (and presumably Joe Biden) when the major personnel decisions are made. There will be Jarrett, an African-American Chicago real estate entrepreneur who has been close friends to the president-elect and the incoming first lady for two decades; Pete Rouse, the press-shy former chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, who performed the same role for a newly elected Illinois senator named Obama; the Chicago-born John Podesta, Bill Clinton’s former White House chief of staff, who stealthily organized the Obama transition during the fall campaign from his Washington perch at the Center for American Progress; David Axelrod, the Chicago-based political strategist, who was the inspiration behind both Obama’s up-from-nowhere 2004 Senate victory and his 2008 run for the Rose Garden; and incoming White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a sharp-elbowed veteran of the Clinton White House who was elected to Congress in 2002 (from Chicago, natch) with the help of Axelrod (double natch).

With all these Chicagoans (aside from Rouse) creating the Obama administration, it is time to drop the Second City urban inferiority complex. If there is an ideological orientation to this team, it seems to be Democratic centrism rather than full-throated liberalism. Bill Galston, a former top domestic advisor to Clinton now at the Brookings Institution, notes that Obama “has a great respect for expertise. His instinct is that in any field, gather the leading experts and go after them.” As Galston puts it, “This is not amateur hour — this is not crony time.” Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and an expert on governmental organization, said admiringly, “Obama is extremely well-prepared. There is a lot of talk coming out of the Bush administration about a seamless transition. But in many instances, the Obama people know as much about what is happening in the Cabinet agencies as the Bush people do.”

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