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Obama tilts to center, inviting a clash of ideas

Barack Obama won the nomination with the hearty support of the left wing of his party. Now, his reported selections for two major Cabinet positions suggest a plan to govern from the center-right.
/ Source: The New York Times

President-elect Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination with the enthusiastic support of the left wing of his party, fueled by his vehement opposition to the decision to invade Iraq and by one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate.

Now, his reported selections for two of the major positions in his cabinet — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state and Timothy J. Geithner as secretary of the Treasury — suggest that Mr. Obama is planning to govern from the center-right of his party, surrounding himself with pragmatists rather than ideologues.

The choices are as revealing of the new president as they are of his appointees — and suggest that, from its first days, an Obama White House will brim with big personalities and far more spirited debate than occurred among the largely like-minded advisers who populated President Bush’s first term.

But the names racing through the ether in Washington about the choices to follow also suggest that Mr. Obama continues to place a premium on deep experience. He is widely reported to be considering asking Mr. Bush’s defense secretary, Robert M. Gates, to stay on for a year; and he is thinking about Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander and Marine Corps commandant, for national security adviser, and placing Lawrence H. Summers, the former Treasury secretary whom Mr. Obama considered putting back in his old post, inside the White House as a senior economic adviser.

'New ideas to the game'
“This is the violin model: Hold power with the left hand, and play the music with your right,” David J. Rothkopf, a former Clinton official who wrote a history of the National Security Council, said on Friday, as news of Mrs. Clinton’s and Mr. Geithner’s appointments leaked. “It’s teaching us something about Obama: while he wants to bring new ideas to the game, he is working from the center space of American foreign policy.”

The reason, several of Mr. Obama’s transition team members say, is that they believe that the new administration will have no time for a learning curve. With the country facing a deep recession or worse, global market turmoil, chaos in Pakistan and a worsening war in Afghanistan, “there’s going to be no time for experimentation,” a member of the Obama foreign policy team said.

That explains Mr. Obama’s first selection — Rahm Emanuel, another centrist Democrat and former member of the Clinton White House, as his chief of staff.

In some ways, the choices made so far are reminiscent of the way the last senator to be elected president — John F. Kennedy — chose a cabinet. As president-elect, Kennedy quickly picked three top officials significantly more conservative than he was: Dean Rusk as secretary of state, Robert S. McNamara as secretary of defense and C. Douglas Dillon, a Republican, as secretary of the Treasury. They helped him navigate the Cuban missile crisis, but also got him bogged down in Vietnam.

Of all the choices Mr. Obama has made so far, it is the selection of Mrs. Clinton that appears the biggest gamble, in part because she has never had to engage in the give-and-take of high-stakes diplomacy, and in part because no one really knows how she will mesh with the Obama White House.

In her discussion with the president-elect, several members of his transition team said, Mrs. Clinton expressed no hesitation about becoming a loyal member of the Obama team — though she was reportedly deeply conflicted about giving up her Senate seat and the independent power base it afforded her.

During the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton went out of their way to point out their foreign policy differences, with Mrs. Clinton portraying herself as a hawkish Democrat and defending her decision to vote in favor of the 2002 resolution that Mr. Bush later considered an authorization to use military force against Saddam Hussein. (Later, she said she fully expected Mr. Bush to use diplomacy first — and was shocked that he did not.)

Now the question is less one of ideological differences than whether a Clinton State Department could become something like Colin L. Powell’s: an alternative, though weak, power center that made little secret of its differences with the White House.

“Anyone who tells you they really know how this is going to work out,” one senior transition official said Thursday, “is telling less than the truth.”

If Mrs. Clinton is taken from the “Team of Rivals” model, Mr. Geithner, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, is from the Team of Neutrals.

“He’s no liberal,” said a former colleague at the Treasury Department, where he managed the American response to the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s.

At the time Mr. Geithner developed a reputation as the ultimate pragmatist, putting together a package of more than $100 billion in aid to halt the financial contagion. That turned out to be a training session for his role, a decade later, in the bailouts of Bear Stearns, A.I.G. and the injection of nearly $350 billion in Congressionally authorized money, whose exact use has become something of a political football.

Mr. Geithner grew up in Asia — in Tokyo, New Delhi and Bangkok — and keeps his ego well in check. He asks a lot of questions, but does not have Mr. Summers’s overwhelming — some say overbearing — personality.

“He clicked with Obama,” one outside adviser said. “If you think about it, their sort of cool, distant styles are alike.”

This article, Obama Tilts to Center, Inviting a Clash of Ideas, first appeared in The New York Times.

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