A year ago, Barack Obama’s campaign organised a rather unusual event. Undecided New Hampshire voters were invited to a hotel for a gathering of a half dozen of Obama’s foreign policy advisers, an illustrious and eclectic bunch that included a former secretary of the navy and Samantha Power, the Irish journalist and authority on genocide who would later exile herself from the campaign after calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” in an interview with The Scotsman. One by one, they talked about Obama and his plans for the world. Finally, the candidate himself appeared and held forth on his own. It was a cross between a graduate seminar and a travelling roadshow – Come Behold Barack Obama and his Astute Advisers Who Can Attest to His Judgement Even in the Absence of Much Experience!
The scene was meant to assure voters worried about the rookie senator’s grasp on world affairs, but it also reflected something fundamental about Obama: he likes to surround himself with very smart people. This might not seem so remarkable, except that it hasn’t really been the case for this past decade in Washington, where George W Bush mixed unquestionably sharp-minded figures such as Dick Cheney and Karl Rove with obvious cronies. Obama, by contrast, fetishises expertise in a way reminiscent of Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal and John F Kennedy’s “best and brightest”. Obama has said that what he enjoyed more than almost anything about his promotion to the US Senate was the ability to call up authorities of all kinds for their insight. Debates within his staff tend to consist of him sitting or stretched out on his office couch, listening intently and pressing those in the room in Socratic fashion before making his decision. Running for president, Obama aimed even higher. After meeting the former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker last year, Obama began reaching out to the 81-year-old economics giant (he’s 6ft 7in) for advice, a resource that came in handy as the markets crumbled. When Obama appeared at his first press conference as President-elect last week, flanked by his 17-member “Transition Economic Advisory Board,” there was Volcker towering over a group that also included the Google CEO Eric Schmidt, the former Treasury secretary and Harvard president Larry Summers, and, looped in by conference call for the preceding meeting, the mega-investor Warren Buffett.
The challenge for Obama is that there is only room in the inner sanctum for so many people. The most influential can be grouped into a few categories – there are the veterans of his tight-knit campaign team who will follow him to Washington, including the laconic southerner likely to be his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, and the mustachioed Chicago newsman-turned-political guru, David Axelrod. There are other Chicago confidantes who acted as travelling companions and gatekeepers during the campaign and will likely play an equivalent role in the White House, most notably Valerie Jarrett, a lawyer, businesswoman and fixture of Chicago’s African-American elite. There are longtime denizens of DC’s Democratic establishment who embraced Obama early on, including Tom Daschle, the soft-spoken former Senate majority leader from South Dakota, from whom Obama has absorbed some of his best Senate and campaign aides, and Greg Craig, a lawyer who defended Bill Clinton during his impeachment and also issued a damning indictment of Hillary’s foreign policy embellishments during the primaries. There are governors who share Obama’s conciliatory and earnest manner and could well end up in key cabinet posts, such as Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas and Tim Kaine of Virginia.
And presiding over it all, for now, are two heavyweights from the Clinton era. Leading the transition process is John Podesta, who served as Bill Clinton’s final chief of staff and has since headed a liberal think tank that was a kind of Democratic government in waiting; and, assigned as Obama’s chief of staff, is Rahm Emanuel, a young Turk in the Clinton White House who, after making millions in finance, was elected to Congress from Illinois. Emanuel is uncommonly colourful by the standards of today’s capital, a former ballet dancer and civilian volunteer in the Israeli Defense Forces who is notorious for his profanity and pugnacity. (In a 2005 tribute, Obama joked that the teenaged accident that cost Emanuel part of his middle finger had “rendered him practically mute” and that Emanuel had composed a ballet based on Machiavelli’s The Prince, with a lot of “kicks below the waist”.)
Emanuel would seem in some ways to undercut Obama’s call for a “new politics” – a Clinton holdover whose flair for the dramatic strays from the Obama team’s buttoned-down tendencies. But his selection is a sign that, for all of the President-elect’s high-mindedness, he knows how good it is to have people like Emanuel in your corner.
I observed this most recently at the convention in Denver, where a colleague asked Emanuel what he made of Obama’s acceptance speech. In characteristically profane fashion, Emanuel praised the speech for its tough retorts to John McCain’s attacks. And for emphasis, as he spoke, he tapped my colleague in the chest repeatedly and with perhaps more force than strictly necessary. Emanuel assures that for all its intellectualism, Obama’s White House will not go soft.