Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Change Comes to Washington?

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama, the enigmatic celebrity darling turned divine savior of the leftist media, was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Indeed, being the first African-American to hold the highest office in the country, his election is quite possibly as significant as, if not more than, Washington or Lincoln. Everyone knew that it would happen; it was just a matter of when. With a rather atypical flat inaugural speech, Obama continued his campaign rhetoric of bringing change to Washington and to the country as a whole. The question is, as the most expensive inauguration in Presidential history, were the obvious excesses necessary at a time when Americans are looking to the U.S. government, and its leaders, for fiscal restraint and responsibility? To some, on both sides of the political aisle, it simply sent the wrong message.

While Joe Biden, the long-serving U.S. Senator from Delaware, will be Vice-President, who has “Team Obama” picked for the rest of the Administration to usher in the new era of “hope and change”?


Chief of Staff - Rahm Emanuel

Emanuel is a former senior advisor to President Bill Clinton. He is known as a firebrand, lashing out at those who cross him. He also has documented associations with the corrupt of Illinois politics, from the current scandal-plagued Governor, Rod Blagojevich, on down.

Director of the Office of Management and Budget - Peter Orszag

Orszag is former Director of the Congressional Budget Office. Professors Alan Blinder, of Princeton, and Joseph Stiglitz, of Columbia University, who served in the Clinton Administration as part of Clinton’s economic advisory team, and Robert Rubin, the former Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton, mentored and influenced him. As the current Director and Senior Counselor of Citigroup, Rubin orchestrated Citigroup's strategy of taking on more risk in debt markets that by the end of 2008 led the firm to the brink of collapse and an eventual government bailout. All things considered, a former student of a man who helped bring about the Wall Street collapse in the first place does not seem the solution needed at present.

Ambassador to the United Nations - Susan Rice

Rice is a former staff member of the National Security Council and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs during the Clinton Administration. A senior foreign policy advisor, accusations have swirled around her concerning the failure to act against, and potentially neutralize, Osama bin Laden and his terrorist organization, al-Qaeda, while he was in Sudan in the mid-1990s.

Director of National Intelligence - Dennis C. Blair

A retired Navy admiral with 34 years experience, Admiral Blair was the CIA's military liaison in the mid-1990s. Upon occasion, he advised Obama while the latter served in the U.S. Senate, and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University with former President Bill Clinton.

Director of the Central Intelligence Agency - Leon Panetta

Panetta is former White House Chief of Staff under Clinton. A veteran Congressman, he is a bureaucratic "outsider" known more for administrative concerns over personnel and budgets with little to no experience in national security matters. He served on the Iraq Study Group, which recommended a phased withdrawal of troops from Iraq in opposition to proposals by the Bush Administration, and General David Petraeus, to increase troops in order to stabilize the country. Only time will tell whether his "outsiderness" will aid or hinder his task of implementing change in an agency that has been under a negative microscope throughout the Bush Administration. As Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the incoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, stated, “I believe the agency is best served by having an intelligence professional in charge at this time.”

Solicitor General - Elena Kagan

Kagan was most recently Dean of the Harvard Law School, from which Obama graduated, and former law professor, working alongside Obama, at the University of Chicago. Her scholarly work focuses on administrative law, including the role of the President of the United States in formulating and influencing federal administrative and regulatory law - undoubtedly something needed by an inexperienced President such as Obama. Having previously served as an associate counsel to President Bill Clinton, it may be recalled that Clinton nominated her for the U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia in 1999. The Republican-led Senate Judiciary Committee declined to bring her nomination forward for a hearing, making it one of two D.C. Circuit nominations not acted upon before the end of the Clinton Administration. Later, President George W. Bush nominated John Roberts, the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, to the seat to which she had been nominated; even more, Obama, as a junior U.S. Senator, voted against Roberts’ confirmation to the high court in 2005. For those not understanding the irony of the entire situation, the Solicitor General is charged with arguing for the United States in front of the Supreme Court.


Secretary of State - Hillary Rodham Clinton

Clinton is the wife of the 42nd President, Bill Clinton, and most recently a U.S. Senator representing New York. Along with former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, she is one of two Cabinet members who sought the Democratic Party nomination for President against Obama. As both a former First Lady and a Senator, Clinton does have experience in dealing with international and foreign affairs. Whether that experience can be translated successfully as head of the Department of State – towing the agenda line of her former rival – is the question. There also exists the potential conflict of interest from the Clinton Foundation’s foreign contributors, who may try to curry favor through contributions.

Secretary of the Treasury - Timothy Geithner

Geithner is former Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs during the Clinton Administration and president of the New York Federal Reserve. Like Peter Orszag, he is a protégé of Robert Rubin, though a variety of sources maintain Lawrence Summers, who became Treasury Secretary upon Rubin’s departure in 1999, is his true mentor; in either case, both Rubin and Summers were key in implementing polices, against recommendations, like derivatives (financial contracts) deregulation that have directly led to current economic troubles. Additionally, his father, Peter Giethner, as a director at the Ford Foundation oversaw the development of microfinance programs in Indonesia in conjunction with President Obama’s late mother, Ann Dunham-Soetoro, during the 1980s. With respect, the nomination has more of an appearance of favoritism over merit, given the personal nature of their association and his academic pedigree.

Secretary of Defense - Robert Gates

Gates is the current Secretary of Defense under the Bush Administration. A proven Secretary, and not as divisive an individual as Donald Rumsfeld (whether that is a good or bad thing), he is nonetheless a holdover from an administration denigrated and assailed by the incoming one.

Attorney General - Eric Holder

Holder is former Deputy Attorney General under Clinton. He agreed with President Clinton in the last-minute pardon of Democratic contributor, and tax evader, Marc Rich in the final days of the Clinton Administration, later admitting he would have opposed the pardon had he been better briefed on the case. As the top person in charge of the entire caseload handled by the Attorney General's office, not sure how, or if, that bodes well for effective oversight for an agency that has seen its share of ignominious mismanagement during the last two administrations.

Secretary of the Interior - Ken Salazar

Salazar was most recently a U.S. Senator representing Colorado. He supported fellow Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman in Connecticut’s primary race against Ned Lamont, which rankled the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party. In 2006, he voted to end protections that limit offshore drilling in Florida's Gulf Coast, and was one of only a handful of Democrats to vote against a bill that would require the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider global warming when planning water projects. For an administration’s environmental policy no doubt influenced and shaped by former Vice-President Al Gore’s laughable Oscar winner, “An Inconvenient Truth,” Salazar would seem an odd choice.

Secretary of Agriculture - Tom Vilsack

Vilsack is former Governor of Iowa. Though eventually dropping out, he ran against Obama in seeking the Democratic Party nomination’s for President. Upon ending his campaign, he endorsed Hillary Clinton and became the national co-chair of her campaign for President. As far as agriculture goes, you cannot get much more agricultural than Iowa, however, having won the Iowa Caucus, perhaps Obama simply returned the favor to Iowans by picking their former governor for his Cabinet?

Secretary of Commerce - VACANT

Bill Richardson, current Governor of New Mexico and a former U.S. Congressman, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of Energy, had been tapped to head Commerce. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, he dropped out of consideration due to an investigation into whether he exchanged New Mexico state government contracts for campaign financing.

Secretary of Labor - Hilda Solis

Solis was most recently a U.S. Congresswoman representing California (D-32nd District). She served in the Carter White House in the Office of Hispanic Affairs and later became an analyst with the Office of Management and Budget. A surprising pick for many reasons, the most glaring being that she has no experience, academically or professionally, concerning the function and duties of the Department of Labor. Like the Panetta nomination, it is a head scratcher that could go either way.

Secretary of Health & Human Services - Tom Daschle

Daschle is a former U.S. Senator representing South Dakota. He is a big advocate for healthcare reform, but failed to get Clinton-era reforms passed while a member, and majority leader, of the Senate. Despite his skills for navigating Capitol Hill, he will have a tougher advocacy role as the White House point man for healthcare issues and policies as a Senate "outsider”. He and his wife also have strong ties to healthcare lobbyists and clients, which pose major conflicts of interest despite guarantees otherwise.

Secretary of Housing & Urban Development - Shaun Donovan

Donovan is former head of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. During the Clinton administration and transition to the Bush administration, he was, respectively, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Multifamily Housing at H.U.D. and acting F.H.A. commissioner.

Secretary of Transportation - Ray LaHood

LaHood was most recently a U.S. Congressman representing Illinois (R-18th District). Notably, he presided over the impeachment vote against President Bill Clinton in 1999. Despite having served on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, by both his and colleagues admissions, he lacks any experience in transportation matters or policymaking. A more logical pick perhaps would have been Minnesota Representative Jim Oberstar (D-8th District), the current chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, who will undoubtedly wield more influence in his position than LaHood as Secretary. Of course, an Illinois politico is closer to home – and likewise easier to control – than Minnesota.

Secretary of Energy - Steven Chu

Professor Chu was most recently professor of Physics, and Molecular and Cellular Biology at University of California-Berkeley and the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. A global warming proponent, he has pushed scientists and industry to develop technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He is a member of the Copenhagen Climate Council, an international collaboration between business and science, established to create momentum for the United Nations COP-15 climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009. As opposed to Salazar, he is not a surprise choice for a position key to environmental policy that leans toward his expertise.

Secretary of Education - Arne Duncan

Duncan, a long-time friend of Obama, was most recently Chief Executive Officer of the Chicago Public Schools, the third largest school district in the United States. With little to no experience in policymaking, he was instrumental in implementing the controversial “Paper Project,” a monetary incentive program for academic performance (i.e. “cash-for-grades”). In other words, the amount a student earns depends on the grade (“A,” “B” or “C”) a student achieves – hardly an accurate barometer of proper learning behavior and retention. How well has it, and other programs, worked? Talk about children left behind – the CPS continues to be one of the worst ranked districts in Illinois, not to mention the nation, in performance and graduation rates. Like the Geithner nomination, it has the taint of personal favoritism over merit.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs - Eric Shinseki

Shinseki is a retired Army general and former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. He publicly, and famously, clashed with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the planning of the war in Iraq over how many troops the U.S. would need to keep in Iraq for the postwar occupation. As Army Chief of Staff, he testified to the Senate Armed Services committee that "something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" would probably be required for postwar Iraq, an assessment rejected by both Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. In hindsight, his assessment proved correct as regards the insurgency that erupted following the invasion, and, ostensibly, led to the adoption of the troop “surge” advanced by General David Petraeus in 2007.

Secretary of Homeland Security - Janet Napolitano

Napolitano was most recently Governor of Arizona. She has governed over a state that has stridently enforced regulations concerning drugs, immigration and illegals. As U.S. District Attorney of Arizona during the 1990s, she aided the investigation of Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. While a partner at Lewis and Roca LLP, the law firm that has the distinction of having represented Ernesto Miranda (Miranda rights?) in 1966, she was also Anita Hill’s attorney at the Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas’ nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991. Arizona…the state represented by Obama’s Republican opponent, John McCain, in the Presidential election. Coincidence?

These are the individuals President Barack Obama has enlisted to implement the promise of change in Washington. Four come from Obama’s political backyard of Illinois, a state consistently beset for decades with corruption and scandal – including the last two governors. Granted, aside from a few "outsiders,” it is logical if not expedient to have experienced people in place to tackle the issues facing the United States home and abroad. Yet, with the recasting of Clinton-era refugees – some of whom may have resentful chips on their shoulders – it seems more Obama is getting the band back together for another tour using the same old song and dance routines of the last Democrat-controlled White House. How long before the delusional fog of idealism burst, replaced by the throbbing hangover of realism? Can the country afford, let alone survive, the outcome?

As always, the more things change the more they stay the same…

©2009 Steve Sagarra

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