Barack Obama’s picks for cabinet and other senior posts are many things: centrists, veterans, rivals. Most of all, though, they’re big: Big names, big intellects, and big egos.
The president-elect’s national security and economic policy teams, inside the White House and out, will be led by power politics veterans, all but one of them older than the president-elect, and all accustomed to being the most important voice in the room.
While official announcements and Senate confirmations await, it appears that on national security decisions, Obama will have a team of heavyweights: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Vice President Joe Biden, retired four-star Marine general Jim Jones as his National Security Adviser, and four-star General David Petraeus as chief of U.S. Central Command.
His economic team is of similar stature: new Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner will find his rival for the job, Larry Summers, in the White House, while former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker will also be in the mix as head of a new economic recovery advisory board.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel seems unlikely to be shy about his views in either arena.
The choices have been widely praised, with even critics such as Karl Rove and the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial board saluting Obama for surrounding himself with some of the most talented and highly regarded figures in American public life. Democrats have celebrated the sheer muscle Obama has assembled to push through his agenda.
Obama has encouraged comparisons between his governing team and Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, which included several of his Republican rivals. But Obama’s is less a team of rivals than a team of giants—and his best and brightest will inevitably jostle up against one another, as some rise and others fall within an administration that has ambitious goals but limited resources.
Almost certainly, they’ll test the strength of a president brimming with confidence and with a self-described mandate.
“The challenge is to have strength in the center,” said Paul Begala, the former Clinton aide. “There’s always risk that these giant planets go out on their own—but if the sun is strong enough, they’ll stay in their orbits.”
Many on the new team have long known one another and the intimate world of Beltway politics for much longer than they’ve known Obama, a relative newcomer to Washington, and most remained neutral in the Democratic primary.
Biden, a 35-year senator, and Gates, a former head of the CIA and deputy national security adviser, were mastering Washington power games when Obama was a law student. Only Geithner is younger than Obama; he was born two weeks later than the president-elect.
“It’s not just that that they’re big players—he’s picking people with tremendous competency,” said former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, a Democrat. “It comes from his own sense—he’s very confident in himself. That’s an extremely valuable characteristic for a president.”
Obama had to persuade two of his picks, Clinton and Gates, to accept.
Veterans of Bill Clinton’s first term say the difference is dramatic. Then, Clinton made Mack McClarty, an Arkansas confidant, his chief of staff and appointed as his secretaries of state and defense important figures, but not people of such stature that there could be any doubt that they would take the job.
One veteran Clinton aide recalled that the president and his aides discussed the risks of bringing big names and large egos, into the White House in his second term, when internal debate focused on whether or not Richard Holbrooke should be named Ambassador to the United Nations.
“Most of the foreign policy team was against it,” the former Clinton aide recalled. “They thought he was too big an ego, too outsized a personality.”
But White House staffers—including Rahm Emanuel—argued in favor of the pick, and Holbrooke got the job.
Counterbalancing possible tensions is the depth of the relationships among the principles and key deputies. On the economic policy team, Geithner and Summers have been friendly sparring partners since the 1990s. On national security, the Democrats have been attending the same conferences and dinner parties for decades. Tom Donilon and Jim Steinberg, top deputies to Biden and Clinton, respectively, are old friends and allies.
“There is an insiders’ group of longstanding Democratic former officials who worked together in the Clinton years, who go to the same conferences, the same ideas festivals, many of whom worked together at places like the Brookings Institution, and [Obama’s] group comprises a certain number of them,” said a Democratic national security hand.
If there’s an obvious gap, it’s between the civilian officials on one hand and Gates and the military men on the other: Gates and Petraeus are key allies, and Gates and Jones are said to be close.
“Those guys don’t have the same social and intellectual and political DNA,” the Democrat said.
Any potential clashes of the titans, though, may be mitigated by the relationships among and between the groups. Clinton and Biden are old allies; but Clinton also wooed Jones during her campaign for president, before the retired general developed a relationship with Obama (To add another layer: Jones also advised John McCain during the campaign, whom he has known since he was Marine Liaison to the Senate and McCain was the Navy Liaison in the late 1970s)
Veterans of past White Houses said they anticipated clashes, and that one of Obama’s key challenges would be to manage the personalities.
“For some of the smallest offices in Washington, the West Wing has hosted some of the largest egos ever. That’s why the boss’s office is Oval—no one can get pushed into the corner,” said Mike McCurry, a former Clinton White House press secretary.
He and other veterans of past White Houses, Democrat and Republican, praised Obama’s picks.
“You want to bring the brightest minds and most capable people to the table. They’re obviously going to have very different views about how you resolve an issue. In the end, the test is really up to president,” said Leon Panetta, a former Clinton White House Chief of Staff. “The president not only has to manage those large personalities but also make the decision. And the decisions are not going to please everybody.”
Mary Matalin, who served as a top aide to Vice-President Dick Cheney in President Bush’s first term, said there was much more upside in assembling a group of outsized egos.
“I can’t think of any president that I’ve worked for or read about that had any patience for a lily-willed personality,” said Matalin, who also worked for Bush 41. “You want them to challenge you and each other.”
And Obama, she said, can limit in-fighting by doing what past presidents have done: taking elements of his advisers differing ideas to formulate his own policy.
“It’s usually not ‘a’ or ‘b,’ but a synthesis,” she said, recalling that the current president would often not uniformly take the advice of Cheney or former Secretary of State Colin Powell, but rather go “off the menu” and pick a third option.
Panetta, similarly, praised Clinton’s ability to weave together input from his sometimes-fractious team to limit bruised egos.
“He took all these different ideas, he mixed them together and came up with an approach that combined different pieces from all his advisers,” said Panetta. “They all got something.”
Yet Clinton was also known at times for voicing the view of the adviser who got to him last, right before a decision was made.
Reminded that Clinton’s desire to please had resulted in some mixed messaging and speeches that were almost cafeteria-like in their options, Panetta let out a knowing laugh.
“That’s part of the challenge of being president,” he said