To understand where President-elect Obama is going with is appointments, I think it is very important to understand something about his psyche. As far as I can tell from a distance, Mr. Obama has his ego out of the way. He is not making decisions based on meeting internal ego needs. He feels really good about himself, and so he should. But even people who should, based on externals, feel good about themselves, sometimes don't. In fact, Mr. Obama appears to me to be the first U.S. President since Dwight David Eisenhower (you can do your own analysis) who makes his decisions on everything, from his policies to his personnel to his choice of White House dog (see last week's New Yorker cover), based on objective reality as he sees it, not on dealing one or more self-perceived personal deficiencies or emotional needs.
This leads me to admire another important element of his thinking that is becoming clear as one analyzes his decision-making process. The first question he asks and answers for himself is: "what is the objective here?" That became oh-so-clear when he intervened in the Senate's process for dealing with poor ol' Joe Lieberman (who will be a lame duck in the Senate for so long that he will need crutches just to get into the chamber by the time 2012 rolls around). Many of us on the Left (and yes, I do count myself as being on the Left) wanted to do nothing more than "get 'im." What a SOB. "Out, out, damned spot" on the escutcheon of the Democratic Party.
"But what would be the objective of that," one can hear Mr. Obama asking himself. Revenge, right? And what would that accomplish? Yes, a much better chair of the Homeland Security Committee. But also one less vote for the Democratic Caucus (most of the time) and a former Democratic Senator (and Vice Presidential nominee) who would feel no compunctions about making anti-Democratic policy speech after anti-Democratic policy speech. So bring him back in (with a private commitment deal, one can be sure), let him run his committee (which will be much less important since in the Obama Administration, we will have a Secretary and a Department actually concerned about Homeland SECURITY, not simply on scaring the beejesus out of the American people at politically opportune times), and not have to worry about him off there on the flank somewhere.
In any Administration, the major decisions are made by the President (OK, in the last one certainly those concerned with foreign and military policy were made by someone else, what was his name again? Seems to have disappeared since the election.) The Cabinet Secretaries do not make them. Their jobs are to carry out Presidential policy. And so, if you want Permanent War in Iraq, you pick Rumsfeld. If you want Justice to take the lead in your plan to gradually destroy Constitutional Democracy, when even such a reactionary as John Ashcroft won't exactly do your bidding, you get Gonzales and then Mukasey. You get a cipher at Homeland Security. You make one competent pick at the beginning for Secretary of State but when he won't do your bidding, you first ignore him, then get rid of him, and then put in another cipher. And so on and so forth. To implement your policies, you mainly want and need weaklings. And you get them.
And so in his Administration, Obama will be making the principal decisions. But for this, he will need strength in the Cabinet, and he is getting it. You also need to make your picks based on one of your most important mantras: "what's the objective?" For example, at State it is obviously first, finally getting a settlement of the Israel/Palestine conflict. While Sen. Clinton meets many other needs, both intellectual and political, of all the available qualified candidates, she is the one most likely to be able to broker that deal.
At Defense, the transition actually began two years ago when Jim Baker inserted his man Bob Gates. He had been on the Iraq Study Group.
Which recommended a plan very much like what Mr. Obama will be attempting to carry out: achieving a comprehensive Middle East settlement as first proposed, believe it or not, by the Saudis in 2002. Gates also nixed the War on Iran, kicked out the former leadership of the Air Force (on the grounds of apparent corruption, but likely also having to do with chopping down the then developing Cheney's-own-chain-of-command project), and started taking a hard look at all of those very expensive, totally useless, military hardware projects so dear to the hearts of Cheney and Rumsfeld. What are Obama's objectives for Defense? Get out of Iraq, probably figure out a way to get out of Afghanistan too, start saving some big bucks by cutting way back on the hardware stuff, and rebuilding the U.S. Armed Forces to do what they should be doing: protect our shores. Gates has had a two-year head start. So keep him on.
Just one more example: Justice. There happens to be an organization called the American Constitution Society. It is our answer to the "let's destroy traditional U.S. Constitutional Democracy by stages" Federalist Society. (Full disclosure: as a former law school faculty member, I belong to the ACS.) For the whole of the Bush Presidency, the ACS has been right out front on the anti-Constitutional Bush appointments to the Federal bench, on the Bush direct assaults on Constitutional Democracy, on the Bush use of torture and illegal detention, on the Bush wholesale violations of the due process of the law.
Obama, a former professor of Constitutional Law, appears determined to begin setting things right for the restoration of U.S. Constitutional Democracy from Day One of his administration. So if that's your objective, which would choose for your Attorney General? Why Eric Holder, a Board member of the ACS, would make a fine choice, don't you think? And then, as if to reinforce this first impression, Mr. Obama chooses as his White House Staff Secretary (no, she doesn't sit there taking notes; she is in charge of the President's schedule) the current Executive Director of the ACS. Ron Klain, VP-elect Biden's incoming Chief of Staff, is another ACS Board member.
"What's the objective?" Mr. Obama will be making the principal decisions. He seems to be picking people who will be able to carry them out. That's the objective of his appointments.
Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and a www.TPJmagazine.us Contributing Author; a regular Columnist for BuzzFlash; a Special Contributing Editor for Cyrano's Journal Online; a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century, POAC; and a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad http://dandelionsalad.