The marquee names get the transition headlines. For that reason, the potential Obama-Clinton marriage has the pundits stirred up. The pundit business being what it is (which is the least entertaining branch of the entertainment business) the focus has been on the potential for conflict. That said, it is pure idiocy to think that there is a problem with the idea of picking for Secretary of State one of the Democratic Party’s best internationally known leaders, a proven strong spokesperson, someone with known toughness, a brilliant, hard-working disciplined student of national security policy whose approach to issues is very close to that of the president. History shows that we have problems when we have weak Cabinet officials rather than strong ones. The secret to success with such strong figures is a strong president. The potential problem would be were Obama to prove to be a weak leader who doesn’t know what he wants from his team and frankly, if that were to prove to be the case, it wouldn’t matter who he picked.
But for all the focus on glamorous celebrities like Tom Daschle and Janet Napolitano, the real work of the government gets done down below the cabinet level. It’s the deputy secretaries, under secretaries, ambassadors, and special envoys of tomorrow who will have to tackle the big problems of the day. And the competition for those jobs is, if anything, fiercer and less dignified than that for the top jobs. Which is, of course, saying something.
These campaigns, unlike the presidential spectacle, are often deliberately conducted stealthily. Character assassination works best that way and so does self-promotion.
The breakfast room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown is under construction these days. Given its quasi-institutional role in the inner workings of the governance of the U.S., it’s a good metaphor. It’s one of the informal trading floors on which Washington’s power brokers quietly do their work. But despite the genteel quality of the notices around the hotel apologizing for the renovations that are in progress, despite the muted earth tones and the signature floral arrangements, you can still sense that feral feeling that has gripped the capital since weeks before the election when it became clear that Barack Obama was going to be the next president.
It doesn’t take more than a moment or two of scanning the room to understand the term “political animal.” There are mating behaviors going on, the pissing out of territorial boundaries, whispered but deadly attacks, and well-dressed men and women with hard-to-conceal hunger in their eyes. It is hard to imagine any other city in America going through this, a transformational redistribution of power, the remaking of pecking orders, the rewriting of the A-list and all its subsidiaries. Given the nature of elections the slate is not wiped clean and rewritten every four years, but every so often it is and watersheds like this one remind everyone of the fundamental difference between political communities (like Washington) and economic ones ( virtually everywhere else).
Power is pretty close to a zero sum game. If I’ve got it, you don’t. In New York, if I’m a billionaire, that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of money to go around for others with similar aspirations. But if you want to run American foreign policy, or energy policy, or economic policy, there are just a handful of meaningful slots, and if I’ve got one of them then the odds go down a lot that you are going to get one. If I am in the small meeting with the new President and there are just so many places to sit in the Oval Office, well you are likely to be on the outside looking in.
With the stakes so high, it is small wonder that the behavior of Washington’s elite becomes so low. Campaigns are waged fiercely both for and against candidates for key jobs. These campaigns, unlike the presidential spectacle, are often deliberately conducted stealthily. Character assassination works best that way and so does self-promotion. High minded op-eds are written. Casual encounters are carefully orchestrated. Old promises are called in. Books are carefully timed to come out to turn the spotlight onto selected members of the wonkocracy. But this all must be handled carefully, with a certain touch of discretion. In a town that is as known for liars and lies as Florence is now for its frescoes and churches, the most common of all lies these days is “I’m not interested in ‘going in.’” Or, as it is more commonly phrased, “I’m not interested in ‘going back in’”—because if you are up for one of the top appointments, the odds are you were “in” before, and for Democrats that means back in the Clinton days.
Yet for all those who are seeking jobs and have resumes that feature jobs in the Clinton Administration, for all those former Clintonites already involved in the transition operation that has been master-minded by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, it is clear this is nothing like the comparable operation during the Clinton years. Because despite the feral behavior of the desperate wannabes and secret wannabes, there is a rationality to this process, a discipline, and a clear vision that already reflects the apparent differences between Bill Clinton, once America’s impulse-engine-in-chief, and the rigorous, orderly mind of Barack Obama.
It is important to remember, however, that a disciplined transition does not a disciplined Administration make. Getting a party’s superstars all lined up in one photo op at the beginning of a presidential term certainly does not ensure that the team will end up all pulling in the same direction or even in the right direction. No group illustrates this better than the administration of George W. Bush. It is hard to remember now but we would be well advised to try to recall how enthusiastic everyone was about the way the former Texas governor offset his own inexperience in Washington with the hiring of proven Washington leaders like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell or how impressed the world was with his audacity in hiring not only Powell but a comparatively little-known African American woman as his National Security Advisor and a highly regarded captain of American industry, Paul O’Neill, as his Treasury Secretary. Whoops. Clearly resumes don’t make good administrations and names that make for good copy during transition season don’t always coalesce into the kind of dream teams behind the scenes that actually produce good policy or execute it effectively.
Of course, part of the answer is that the most critical component of any transition team is the President-elect himself, for he is the one who makes the team successful once it is in place. Far too much press has been given thus far to the idea of the “team of rivals.” In fact, I think it is time to place the concept in storage for a while lest it become an utterly meaningless cliché. Virtually every administration has had rivalries among senior players, and many have had senior players with political bases that made them independent actors who could, if they desired, stand up to their president. Such rivalries strengthen an administration if the president remains firmly in charge and creates a system that makes the most of creative ferment rather than one that is undone by division. (See: Cheney and Rumsfeld vs. Powell, Schultz vs. Weinberger, Vance vs. Brzezinski, Kissinger vs. Rogers, the Kennedys vs. Johnson, etc.)
The wise Pete Peterson, now of the Blackstone Group, formerly Commerce Secretary, once said that one of the secrets to success in a job was picking the right predecessor. Certainly, Obama has already nailed that one. But the secret corollary for a good “team of rivals” (sorry, but that’s the last time I’ll use it, I swear) is choosing the right rivals. The rumors and the facts are encouraging on this front. Biden. Emmanuel. Holder. Perhaps Clinton. Perhaps Gates. Perhaps Geithner. This is the kind of A-team we need and one that reflects well on the incoming chief executive. But who is only the first part of the riddle. The second part, not the who but the what, will prove trickier still.
What changes will they bring? How big will they think? How many will recognize that their experience in the Clinton years is in the distant past and that in the time since then geopolitics, world markets, the nature of the threats we face, and the extent and limits to our own power have changed dramatically and call for new thinking and new solutions?
If old people arrive with new ideas, even if the path they take to high office is a little debasing, we will be well served. But if what we get is as familiar as the transition rituals seen in restaurants, bars and fancy living rooms across Washington then it won’t matter who makes it to the top of the greasy pole. They won’t be up there long enough for us to get to know them very well anyway.
David Rothkopf is a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They are Making.”