Obama's fusion cabinet
He's expanding the definition of diversity beyond race and gender to include differing views.
Like a student who finishes his homework early, Barack Obama can vacation in Hawaii with the satisfaction that he's largely named his cabinet in record time, and that his choices have been generally well received. Ahead lies the real test: Can he manage this group of diverse views and traditions?
It wasn't long ago when "diversity" in politics meant gender, race, and ethnicity. In 1992, Bill Clinton promised a cabinet that would look like America. It took him a while to calculate the mix, and when he finally did, interest groups checked off their boxes as if identity politics mattered most. Considering the dearth of this kind of diversity in high public office, perhaps the emphasis was right for the times.
It's a sign of social progress – and of comfort with views not his own – that Mr. Obama has presented a salad-bowl cabinet in which differing political opinion and strong personal style add the flavor. His team includes a significant number of people of color and also women, but he hasn't made a big deal of it. His choices appear to have naturally risen to the top due to their experience and expertise.
The diversity challenge for this president will be in deftly managing views and personalities – including four rivals from the primaries.
Obama will have to be a hands-on decider who can balance and bend the steel wills of a Lawrence Summers or a Hillary Clinton while juggling contrasting opinions. Case in point: the designated secretary of Labor (US Rep. Hilda Solis of California, from a working-class union family) versus the named US trade representative (former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, a free-trader and no union favorite).
Obama played up the positives of differences when he first introduced his national security team, which includes Defense Secretary Robert Gates as a holdover from the Bush administration. He characterized variety as a guard against "groupthink," but added the Harry Truman line that "the buck stops here." It will have to, or he could be inviting resentment from those who lose a debate, chaos from indecision, or an ill-defined policy that runs in multiple directions.
Critics cry that Obama abandoned his "change" mandate, appointing retreads from the Clinton and Bush years. How can the new administration diverge when many of its members are insiders?
But Obama's instinct to rely on mostly outside experts for areas such as education and energy, while turning to old hands for the two largest challenges – the economy and national security – makes sense.
And the evidence shows insiders are capable of change. They're involved in a gigantic stimulus (no chump change, that), while the military will shift focus to Afghanistan. Change? Surely. Whether it's the right sort is another matter.
It looks as if the president-elect is stretching cabinet diversity to include diversity of ideas – to an extent. His team is still largely Democratic, without the degree of GOP input he hinted at earlier.
Still, it's not the makeup that Obama's liberal record might have suggested. Several nominees are moderates who don't fit neatly into pigeonholes of the left or right.
By heading toward the center, Obama's going where most Americans are, but it's a landscape absent familiar ideological guideposts. He will need vision and skill to signal the way ahead.