In Cabinet, Obama goes for experience, pragmatism

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WASHINGTON–Barack Obama has wholeheartedly embraced experience in choosing his Cabinet. That may seem at odds with the president-elect’s campaign theme of “change we can believe in.”

WASHINGTON–Barack Obama has wholeheartedly embraced experience in choosing his Cabinet.

That may seem at odds with the president-elect’s campaign theme of “change we can believe in.” But some Democratic activists and nonpartisan analysts say it makes sense, given the dire economy and public anxiety.

Obama has tapped senators and representatives, governors and veteran bureaucrats to help him confront the challenges of two wars, a crippled financial system and a deepening recession.

“In uncertain times, Americans find it much more comforting that the people who are going to be advising the president are steeped in experience,” said Rutgers University political scientist Ross Baker. “A Cabinet of outsiders would have been very disquieting.”

To be sure, Obama’s inner circle includes far more veterans of elected office and federal agencies than government newcomers.

Moreso than his recent predecessors, he has drawn heavily from the Senate for top advisers. His choices for secretary of state (Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York), interior secretary (Ken Salazar of Colorado) and vice president (Joe Biden of Delaware) were fellow senators. Tom Daschle, named health secretary, was the Senate Democratic leader from South Dakota until he lost his seat in 2004.

From the House, Obama has plucked Reps. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois as his chief of staff, Hilda Solis of California for labor secretary and just-retired Republican Ray LaHood of Illinois for transportation secretary.

He also settled on three prominent current or former governors for the Cabinet: Bill Richardson of New Mexico for commerce secretary, Janet Napolitano of Arizona at homeland security and Tom Vilsack, who stepped down as Iowa governor two years ago, for agriculture secretary.

Several appointees had ambitions far beyond their state borders. Vilsack, Richardson, Biden and Clinton sought the presidential nomination that Obama won. Daschle considered running for president as well.

Obama also came down on the side of experience in filling other Cabinet posts. Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a holdover from President George W. Bush’s administration and a former CIA director under Bush’s father. Attorney General-designee Eric Holder was deputy attorney general under President Bill Clinton.

Timothy Geithner, the choice for treasury secretary, is president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Lawrence Summers, Obama’s National Economic Council director, is a former treasury secretary.

For the most part, Obama’s Cabinet has been well received by both Democrats and Republicans, although some Democrats have complained that Obama’s team will not do enough to shake up the status quo on matters such as the Iraq war, oversight of the financial industry, and trade.

Former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk’s nomination to be U.S. Trade Representative, for example, drew fire from groups that say current policies have shipped too many jobs overseas and allowed unsafe imports to enter the country.

“I am deeply concerned” that Kirk’s past positions “do not reflect the reform agenda that President Obama has pledged,” said Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, co-founder of the House Trade Working Group.

High-profile Cabinet members, such as Gates and Hillary Clinton, have drawn the most attention. But the few Washington newcomers in the group may end up playing bigger roles in Obama’s bid to make break sharply from Bush administration policies.

Energy Secretary-designee Steven Chu, for example, pledges to give prominence to scientific research and efforts to combat global warming, two areas that many contend were slighted by Bush. Chu, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, has been a vocal advocate of aggressive action to deal with climate change.

By most counts, Obama has fulfilled his promise to have the most diverse Cabinet in history. Of his nominees for jobs generally considered “Cabinet level,” fewer than half are white men.

Three are Latino (Richardson, Salazar and Solis). Four are Black (Kirk, Holder, U.N. Ambassador nominee Susan Rice and Environmental Protection Agency pick Lisa Jackson). Two are Asian-American (Chu and Eric K. Shinseki, Obama’s pick for veterans affairs secretary).

But Obama fell short, Baker said, in picking full-throated Republicans for his Cabinet. Gates, staying on as defense secretary, has not confirmed that he is a Republican, and LaHood often annoyed GOP leaders by refusing to walk the party line on key issues.

All in all, however, Obama has put in place a diverse team in which almost no one appears to have been chosen mainly to fill a gender or ethnic slot, said Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute.

“To be able to get that mix of Hispanics and African Americans and Asians and women is really impressive,” he said.

The overall team, Ornstein said, “is a collection of very strong individuals and people known for their pragmatism.”

It may not please liberal activists who want sweeping change in Washington, he said, but it reflects a pragmatic new president facing some of the toughest challenges in modern times. AP

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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