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John Gress/Rapport/Newscom

Choosing his team

Politics | Early picks suggest Obama "should keep reading his Lincoln"

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

Cabinet posts to fill: 15.

Political appointees to choose: 2,500.

Rumors flying over who President-elect Obama will pick to help him run the country: Infinite.

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With numerous former Clinton officials already named, the rifest rumor is that what many hoped would be a second Clinton presidency may well be one-but without any Oval Office Clintons.

That, said American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar Gerard Alexander, may be better news than many people think. "The very distinctive thing that Clinton did differently is that his policymaking was in many ways quite centrist," said Alexander, who also teaches political science at the University of Virginia. The gene pool of potential cabinet candidates is much "wider than the Clinton administration. If Obama wanted to choose people farther to the left of the Clinton administration, he could be doing that. But so far he isn't."

If that pattern holds true, Alexander said, it may validate one of the theories that emerged about Obama during the presidential campaign: that rather than being a stealth radical or an empty suit, he is a deeply ambitious man who intends to keep his new job by governing from the center in the New Democrat style on fiscal and foreign policy, with generous helpings of social liberalism.

Hillsdale College political science professor David Bobb has a different take. Instead of Clinton-style Third Wayism or hard leftism, Bobb said Obama's choices to date signal Progressivism: "Obama lately has paid tribute to Abraham Lincoln, who held that the principles affirmed by the founding generation were immutably true. The Progressives held that the only thing that is constant is change . . . so the really interesting questions aren't about the Clinton retreads but rather the fundamental beliefs our president-elect has about America and the principles upon which it is founded," such as natural rights, natural law, and a static, rather than "living," Constitution.

"The evidence suggests that President-elect Obama . . . should keep reading [his] Lincoln, and add to it Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Washington," Bobb said.

In addition to John Podesta, who heads Obama's transition team and was Bill Clinton's chief of staff, and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton senior policy advisor, potential cabinet picks include former Clinton deputy Eric Holder for attorney general and Sen. Hillary Clinton for secretary of state. That plus a Nov. 17 meeting with GOP presidential rival John McCain prompted widespread speculation that the president-elect may be pursuing his 19th-century predecessor's "team of rivals" approach to governing. Lincoln tapped former GOP rivals William Seward and Edward Bates for secretary of state and attorney general, respectively.

But Aaron David Miller, a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., said such comparisons don't account for current media realities. Bringing stars like Clinton into his cabinet "might pose problems in an era where message control is important for the smooth working of government."

Some have suggested that choosing Clinton would keep her from opposing Obama for president in 2012. But Miller said Obama doesn't need a Godfather-style, "keep your friends close and your enemies closer" cabinet: "He needs honest, competent advice. He needs people who will tell him what he doesn't want to hear."

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