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No Decisions: Obama Votes ‘Present’ on Cabinet Picks

Is he exercising caution or once again avoiding difficult choices?

by
Jennifer Rubin

Bio

November 14, 2008 - 12:00 am

The game of “fantasy cabinet” has begun as pundits and voters mull over the choices for key posts in the new Obama administration. But those are the only cabinet picks right now. Barack Obama seems content to take weeks to name his Treasury secretary and critical national security spots.

For now the media remains smitten and there is little criticism of his deliberative process. But events have a way of taking hold. The stock market has been on the skids. Some attribute this to gnawing uncertainty about the Obama presidency and questions about who will fill the Treasury spot. Larry Kudlow writes:

Some folks think the stock market is stalking Obama, whose defining moment may be a GM bailout. Plus, investors are waiting for a new Treasury appointee who will shed light on Obama’s tax and trade threats for 2009 as well as his UAW rescue mission that is so strongly favored by Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Policies protecting ailing industries would certainly set a France-like tone for the new administration.

Meanwhile, the wrangling between centrists and leftists over national security has emerged. The former seem content to allow Defense Secretary Robert Gates to remain on, a prospect which horrifies the far left who helped deliver the Democratic nomination to Obama.

But the cautious decision-making style and refusal to leap into the fray should come as no surprise. After all, candidate Obama during the financial meltdown viewed events from afar and refused to weigh in for weeks on the propriety of the AIG bailout. (No word yet on whether he likes the re-bailout better than the original.) And, of course, Obama took flak in the campaign for voting “present” over a hundred times in the Illinois State Senate.

To some degree, not making decisions has been the key to Obama’s electoral success. The less said, the easier to maintain diverse constituent groups within the fold and the harder for his opponents to paint him as radical or “risky.”

But that was the campaign and now is the transition. During a campaign with a compliant media he could get away with generalities and impress voters with his “temperament.” But the presidency demands specific action on particular policy and personnel decisions. No matter how “calm,” the president still must make the tough calls. Once he is sworn in, Obama will need to make those hard choices and incur the criticism which inevitably comes when supporters discover he really may not govern in the way they had in mind.

Others defend the pace and order of Obama’s appointments, pointing to the necessity of selecting White House advisors rather than cabinet heads. Marc Ambinder notes:

The Clinton team thought that the cabinet mattered more than the White House staff, and spent a lot of time arguing, deciding, negotiating over cabinet picks. But the real power and control in Washington is centered in the White House … that was true even in the Bush White House with its high-profile roster of cabinet appointments.

Still, there has not been a flurry of White House staff picks either. So the message, as it was during the campaign, is clear: Obama is not a man who likes to be rushed or who relishes in making quick decisions.

The other noteworthy maneuver by President-elect Obama has been to muzzle his vice president-elect. Joe Biden ended the campaign on a roll of gaffes, the worst of which was that the top of the ticket would be tested by an international crisis and would not necessarily get it “right.” Since Election Day Biden has been in deep freeze — nary a press conference or an interview. Once again, the direction from the Obama camp appears to be: no unforced errors.

This may also be a sign of things to come. Certainly no one would blame the new president if he kept Biden hidden from view or engaged in behind-the-scenes consultation. Despite the need to bring on Biden during the campaign to add gravitas, it may be that less of Biden — at least in public — is more.

And finally, the other potential lightning rod, Michelle Obama, has renounced any policy role and declared that her primary concern is her two daughters. That’s a far cry from her controversial and prominent role in the campaign and her husband’s frequent statements that she was his closest political advisor. But once again the Obama team is taking no chances. The last thing they need is controversy or attention on a first lady who underwent a remarkable campaign makeover from embittered leftist — who was never proud of her country until the Iowa caucus — to dutiful spouse and mother.

So we may not yet know much about the policy inclinations of the Obama administration. But we know quite a bit about its operating style. Caution and deliberation are the watchwords. This may work to Obama’s advantage — so long as there is no pressing crisis or serious criticism. Unfortunately for him, what presidency hasn’t had plenty of both?

Jennifer Rubin blogs at the Washington Post.
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