Monday, December 01, 2008

Obama's Cabinet

A lot has been made of Obama's cabinet. The most common comparison is to Lincoln and his team of rivals. I'd like to point out a closer resemblance to a more recent president - George W. Bush.

Lincoln appointed four rival candidates to the presidency to his cabinet. Obama appointed Hillary Clinton. Bush appointed Colin Powell (who had seriously considered running for President). Neither Obama not Bush appointed more than a single rival and both appointed the rival as Secretary of State.

For the rest of his appointments, Bush chose a combination of Republican office-holders and people from his father's term. Obama has chosen several Democratic office-holders and people from the Clinton White House.

Choosing a cabinet is only part of the issue. The other issue is how you handle them.

Bush has an MBA from Harvard School of Business and used the Harvard model for successful corporate presidents. This consists of filling a room with smart people and allowing them to argue out an issue. The president may ask some questions but does not lead the discussion. Instead he thanks everyone then makes the decision on his own based on the input he received. When Bush said that he was the "decider" he was probably referring to this.

There are strengths and weaknesses with this approach. The downsides are that it leaves the president detached from the discussion. He is not supposed to take sides. Rather, he is to weigh the alternatives and pass judgment. It makes a president reluctant to reverse decisions. It is also nearly impossible for a president to avoid having favorites or giving more weight to the sides that he prefers. It also gives an advantage to the more eloquent advocate. All of these problems have come up at one time or another during the Bush administration. It also cultivates a culture of yes-men.

The alternative is for the president to take an active part in the policy arguments. The downside of this are that it diminished the president's authority and that the process of taking sides can alienate people on the losing side.

We have no idea how Obama will handle his new cabinet. His supporters probably assume that he will be more hand-on than Bush. He insists that he wants people who will disagree with him but he has no history to show that he pull this off.

Obama has also been compared to FDR. So far there is no indication that he is assembling his own brain trust.

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