Sunday, November 30, 2008

Team of Idols

More accustomed to relying upon himself to shape events, he took the greatest control of the process leading up to the nomination, displaying a fierce ambition, an exceptional political acumen, and a wide range of emotional strengths, forged in the crucible of personal hardship, that took his unsuspecting rivals by surprise.
Although as much could surely be said of the President-elect, the foregoing was a summation of the personal attributes that allowed for Abraham Lincoln's receiving his party's nomination in the 1860 presidential campaign (as provided by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin in her - quite literally - weighty tome, Team of Rivals.)

But before Barack Obama claimed it as a template for governance, Goodwin's book was at best an exemplar of exceptional historical biography. At worst, it was repeatedly used by the MSM as an indictment against the Bush administration's alleged penchant for relying on a close circle of trusted aides in making decisions, as opposed to the "genius" of Lincoln in "the unprecedented decision to incorporate his eminent rivals into his political family."

While the community of historians is not entirely convinced of either the novelty or efficacy of Lincoln bringing his political competitors into his administration, the idea of a president doing so has gained currency as of late. And even as the thought bringing in the so-called best and brightest from across the political spectrum sits cozily with the notion of President Obama rising above partisanship, the facts - both current and historical - suggest that the proposition might leave much to be desired upon implementation.

In the area of economic policy, Obama has unnecessarily complicated things for himself entirely for the purpose of instilling confidence in his handling of the current economic crisis. During an appearance on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, it was the New York Times' David Brooks who questioned
how Obama would reconcile competing ideas from his quintuple economic team, to include the Treasury Department, the National Economic Council, the Council of Economic Advisers, the Federal Reserve and the newly minted Economic Recovery Advisory Board. (Listen to podcast here.)

And Brooks is not alone in his concern. The Washington Post is similarly distressed that Obama's array of economic sages - his "surplus of smarts" as the Post described it - might result in
"advisers leading agencies with overlapping mandates [battling] for the president's ear and for influence over policy."

"You wouldn't want to gather anything less than the best people you can find, even though stars have egos that are somewhat outsized and those egos might make it difficult to work together," said Peter J. Wallison, a Reagan White House counsel and now a director at the American Enterprise Institute.

But he said Obama must create clear lines of authority to avoid rattling the financial markets. "This is a management problem, and I hope Obama, who has never had an executive position, understands the confusion that will occur unless he designates a specific spokesperson," he said. "I've been in too many administrations and seen how things can get out of control." (Emphasis added.)

Obama's favored approach as a senator -- bringing as many smart people as possible into the room and letting them hash out issues -- could prove less workable when urgent executive decisions must be made. The challenge could be acute, given that at least one team member, [Lawrence H.] Summers, is well known for a depth of thinking matched by self-confidence in asserting his views.

The fatuousness of the "team of rivals" abstraction becomes even more evident upon examination of Obama's foreign policy team. To the collective understanding of the New York Times, Obama is set to establish a cadre of aid workers and diplomats within the State Department that "would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states." Alongside current Defense Secretary Robert Gates and retired General James L. Jones as National Security Adviser, Obama will be relying on none other than Hillary Clinton to shepherd the better part of the "rebalancing of America's national security portfolio" as Secretary of State.

I will leave it to history to determine whether this approach will end up being a latter-day "hearts and minds" campaign, but in the face of enemies who despise us irrespective of the fact that America is already the most philanthropic nation that has ever existed, I will venture to guess that this scheme will end up being an ineffective indulgence of liberal imaginary thinking. In any event, am at liberty to leave the most effective critique of Ms. Clinton as Sec'y of State to one of the more practiced apologists for her husband's administration.

Syndicated columnist Georgie Anne Geyer summed up Hillary's negatives thusly:
She voted for the Iraq War (while Obama was elected mostly because of his stance against the war). She pushed her husband not to attack the awful Bosnian massacres because it would call attention away from her health plan, which, of course, turned out disastrously. (Emphasis in original.)

In her helter-skelter and foolishly spendthrift campaign, she showed that she is one of the worst managers in politics, while one of the major chores of the new secretary will be to reorganize the American Foreign Service. A landmark report shows that the service will demand nearly 50 percent more diplomats in the near future and is overwhelmed by the extent to which the U.S. military is, in the wake of the Iraq War, taking over foreign policy. She has shown that her financial sense is woefully lacking—exactly what would she do at the State Department to pay off her $7.6 million debt from her losing campaign?
Not one to leave a stone unturned in all of this, Geyer points to the sophistry of Obama's studied attempts to bring multiple viewpoints into his administration.
Everyone is saying that the president-elect has become fascinated by Abraham Lincoln's idea of assembling a "team of rivals" in his Cabinet. But, in truth, especially with today's immediate threats, that is more intellectually cutesy than practical. The American people didn't vote for Obama to then find the people they voted against in the positions most closely surrounding him. If his choices continue along these lines, he will be starting out, in this terribly difficult time, with a lot of the fates arrayed unnecessarily, and indeed by his own invitation, neatly against him.
In the end, the approach taken by the President-elect only makes sense if you view a multitude of possible solutions to a given problem as equally feasible and practical, which is to say if you have no overarching principles or intellectual capital to guide your decision-making. Obama's desire to project a sense that all ideas are on the table for consideration is born of a need to obscure his own lack of competence on a range of issues of which a future president might be expected to have an understanding.

In his contests with Senators Clinton and John McCain, Obama portrayed the choice for voters as one between the experience of his rivals and his own judgment. He now reveals the fact that he possesses neither, and shows himself to be more Forest Gump than Abraham Lincoln.

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