So, who will Barack Obama appoint to the cabinet and other key positions in his incoming administration?

To stipulate something up front: nobody really knows. When Obama and his transition team are ready to make announcements, they’ll announce them. All we can do at this point is speculate.

So, let’s speculate!

This is really just an exercise in wish-fulfillment. It’s not based on any insider buzz from John Podesta, Valerie Jarrett, or anybody else, and many of the real choices will doubtless be very different. But there’s lots of speculation going on around the blogosphere right now, and it’s interesting to consider who might best fill some of these posts.

Senior staff positions will probably top the list of announcements, even before the executive departments. We already know the Chief of Staff; strategist David Axelrod will stick around as a senior political adviser; and communications director Robert Gibbs is a safe bet (and a good one) to stick around as Press Secretary. The most important still-vacant position is almost certainly Director of the Office of Management and Budget, especially given current circumstances and the consequent vital need to coordinate federal economic policy. The OMB controls the actual spending of money for programs already authorized. Wish fulfillment aside, I wouldn’t put money against Austan Goolsbee, Obama’s longtime economic adviser and fellow U of C professor. He’s an economic centrist, but a very smart one.

Other key economic positions include the Council of Economic Advisers (and its chair), the National Economic Council director, and the SEC chair… as well as (moving into the cabinet itself) the Treasury Secretary. Obviously there’s already a large pool of possibilities for all of these positions, as we saw Friday, and it’s not clear who might be slotted in where. There’s a clear emphasis in that pool on Clinton-era veterans, however, apparently prioritizing centrism and “continuity,” and what we really need are a few more original thinkers, people who were actually right about the problems in the economy before the boots started dropping. First and foremost on that list should be Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, also a Clinton veteran but a more outspoken critic of “free market” orthodoxy. I’d love to see him at Treasury, or (failing that) in any of these positions. Also included should be fellow Nobel laureate and well-known Bush critic Paul Krugman, liberal billionaire George Soros, and NYU economist Nouriel Roubini, who has been spot-on in his analysis of every step of this evolving crisis.

The names bruited about the most for Treasury include Larry Summers (who held the job under Clinton), Paul Volcker (Federal Reserve chair in the early ’80s), and Timothy Geithner (current president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank). Dark horse names include Laura Tyson (a UC Berkeley economist and former chair of Clinton’s CEA), New Jersey governor Jon Corzine (a former chair of Goldman Sachs). Of these, the last thing we need is another finance industry insider like Corzine (following in the footsteps of Hank Paulson); at 81 Volcker would be too old, more a figurehead than anything else; and Summers is controversial for several reasons (most notably the fact that he helped shepherd the 1999 Financial Services Modernization Act, one of the the key deregulatory measures that led to the current crisis). Of this narrow pool, the best choice would probably be Geithner, who is a (relatively) fresh face but still widely respected in the financial world, reportedly shares Obama’s calm demeanor, and has a fairly Keynesian sensibility.

Besides Treasury, the top spots in the cabinet are Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and Attorney General, all venerable positions that date back to the days of George Washington.

  • At State, there have been rumors about choosing Sen. John Kerry or even going across the aisle to Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), but my personal favorite is former U.N. Ambassador  Bill Richardson, with his deep reservoir of diplomatic experience.
  • At Defense, there’s been considerable talk about keeping on Robert Gates or appointing another Republican like Sen. Chuck Hagel, but I think that would be a mistake. Too many Democratic presidents have chosen a SecDef from the GOP (Robert McNamara ring any bells? William Cohen?), and it just feeds the counter-productive perception that Democrats are “weak” on national security issues. Gates has certainly been a dramatic improvement from his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, but there are plenty of qualified non-Republicans to choose from for this post. If Gates is retained at all, it should only be as a temporary transition, with a clear heir apparent. My personal preference would be Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), a West Pointer, former Army Ranger, and graduate of the Kennedy School of Government and Harvard Law—as well as a steadfast liberal. Alternately, another good choice would be Gen. Anthony Zinni, an outspoken opponent of the Iraq war who has a history of bipartisanship (but legally, he’s not eligible until 2010, a decade after his retirement from the military).
  • For AG, as far as I’m concerned the only choice is U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. He’s been an indefatigable investigator of corruption at the national, state, and city levels. He has what it’ll take to depoliticize the Justice Department in the wake of Ashcroft and Gonzales (and the placeholder Mukasey), and restore the trust and respect without which the DOJ cannot function. (Plus, he’s another Chicagoan. 😎 )

As for other cabinet departments…

… for Interior (or perhaps EPA?), I’d say Al Gore, except that he has categorically ruled out serving, so how about reaching across the aisle to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME)? She’s a moderate Republican, and a member of Republicans for Environmental Protection, promoting the mantra that “conservation is conservative.”

… for Homeland Security, Richard Clarke is an easy choice, and a bipartisan one to boot.

… for Commerce, how about former Labor Secretary Robert Reich (one of the pool of economic advisers already mentioned above)?

… for Energy, how about Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), Chair of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming?

… for Agriculture, how about former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, a strong populist progressive?

… for Transportation, how about Paul Weyrich? (Yes, the right-wing Republican Paul Weyrich. He’s actually good on rail and mass transit issues.)

… for HUD (although that may change, as noted in my last post), how about former Salt Lake city mayor Rocky Anderson?

… for Health and Human Services, how about Dr. Howard Dean, who just stepped down (after one term, as promised) from leadership of the Democratic National Committee?

… for Labor, how about former Rep. David Bonior, the chair of the nonprofit American Rights at Work, and already (again) among Obama’s advisers?

… for Education, how about reaching outside the box to longtime education reformer Jonathan Kozol?

… for Veterans’ Affairs, how about Tammy Duckworth, who knows the issue firsthand and has done well with the equivalent position here in Illinois?

… and outside the Cabinet, another good sign is the recent appointment as technology adviser of tech guru Julius Genachowski, a big advocate of net neutrality and online privacy.

These names would make an excellent cabinet—bipartisan but liberal, pragmatic rather than ideological, people with genuine subject matter expertise—all the exact opposite of the coterie of single-minded yes-men with which Bush and Cheney surrounded themselves.

For more on Obama’s White House as actual announcements emerge, this HuffPo page is doing its best to stay up-to-the-minute. In the meantime, though, it’s entertaining (sometimes even uplifting!) to think about the possibilities.

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2 Responses to “The road to January”
  1. Jamie Holts says:

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  2. Jamie Holts says:

    Just wanted to say HI. I found your blog a few days ago on Technorati and have been reading it over the past few days.

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