Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Politics: Egos vs. Cronies

BELLEVUE, WASHINGTON - The two most recent presidential transitions in the United States featured governors moving to Washington D.C. and taking much of their staffs with them. Barack Obama, as a senator rather than an executive, didn't have a similar executive staff to move with him, and has instead chosen mostly quite experienced people with independent political ambitions. Can Obama mold this crew into a cohesive team?

When Bill Clinton moved from Little Rock, Arkansas to Washington D.C. in 1993, he brought such names with him as original chief of staff "Mack" McLarty, and lawyer Vince Foster. When George W. Bush moved from Austin, Texas in 2001, he brought with him such names as deputy chief of staff Karl Kove, counselor Karen Hughes, and attorney Harriet Miers. Thus, my generation has gotten used to close administrative aides moving from the state level to the national stage.

The obvious advantage of such moves for the president is that trusted and loyal advisers will already understand how they operate and how they wish to make decisions and generally get things done. The disadvantage of bringing in this kind of person is that they can insulate the president from creative input, may not connect well with the other political structures in nation's capitol (especially an issue during the early Clinton administration), and from a public relations perspective can give the appearance of surrounding oneself with "cronies."

Not having served in an executive position in government, Barack Obama couldn't just bring a team from Illinois into the White House. Instead, he has tried to generally tried to find qualified individuals. Rahm Emanuel, Obama's Chief of Staff designate, represents and interesting example. He may be from Illinois and have figured prominently in Obama's presidential campaign, but outside of that campaign had never worked directly for Obama, so he is not really analogous to a McLarty or a Rove.

Moving up to the cabinet level, Obama seems to have followed a strategy of getting his former presidential rivals into top jobs. The process could be said to have started with Joe Biden's nomination as vice president, and has now been followed up with expected nominations of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Bill Richardson as Secretary of Commerce. Since all of these individuals had been running for president, they clearly had political ambitions of their own, and may yet harbor them.

This raises the question of whether Obama might be creating a government of egos who won't operate as a team. In a sense, this is the opposite problem of the "crony" situation--there may be plenty of ideas around the table but potentially no teamwork leading to very inefficient and inconsistent government.

While this would seem to be a very real possibility, recall that Obama's one big piece of executive experience--his 2008 campaign itself--was reportedly set up in a similar manner, with Obama recruiting disparate experienced individuals, giving them direction, and then letting them run their portions of the organization. It is hard not to view that as a success; some say that the Obama electoral machine was the best seen in a generation. Likely, there were not the same level of egos within the campaign staff as there will be in the cabinet, but other than that, the situations seem analogous. If Obama could create a high-functioning campaign organization, there seems to be some hope that he can manage the egos of the high-powered cabinet nominees and create a high-functioning White House executive organization.

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