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Next: Put this Cabinet to work

Obama's eclectic team has the political skill to tackle his ambitious agenda -- but its efforts may test his political coalition.

December 20, 2008|Peter Nicholas and Jim Tankersley

WASHINGTON — The Cabinet that President-elect Barack Obama completed on Friday is a largely centrist and pragmatic collection of politicians and technocrats without a pronounced ideological bent. Liberals are satisfied but not delighted. Conservatives say the nominees aren't as leftist as they'd feared. Powerful interest groups with conflicting agendas are appeased.

But compared with what comes next, assembling the 15-member team was the easy part.

Obama wants this Cabinet to market and put in place the most dramatic policy changes in the country since Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal: a mammoth program to improve roads and bridges; a healthcare system that covers more sick people at less cost; limitations on fossil fuels and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming; big investments in energy efficiency; middle-class tax cuts along with a tax hike on wealthy Americans.

For Obama to impose this ambitious agenda, he'll make some people angry. And that will strain the political coalition he has painstakingly built.

In the short term, Obama's Cabinet nominations strengthen him politically. Even Capitol Hill Republicans say they are reassured.

"His appointments overall are such that he's lived up to the best expectations of his rhetoric," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista). "He's choosing intellectuals and scientists and other notables. . . . He's going to get the benefit of the doubt based on his appointments in many areas."

Obama has picked an eclectic group. There are women, Latinos, Westerners, several President Clinton appointees, a full-fledged Clinton (Hillary), a Bush holdover, Republicans, an African American, free-traders, free-trade opponents and a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

As a candidate, Obama often seemed reluctant to take concrete stands that might alienate important interest groups. Now that he is elected, some Washington lobbyists and officials point to emerging signs that he's willing to disappoint his political base. They cite the announcement that Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, who opposes abortion and gay marriage, will deliver the invocation at Obama's swearing-in ceremony. Gay rights leaders and others criticized the choice, particularly citing Warren's support for California's Proposition 8, banning same-sex marriage. But Obama's willingness to endure the backlash may foreshadow battles ahead.

Peter Peyser, a Democratic lobbyist in Washington, said: "The Rick Warren controversy is a perfect example of what's probably coming. Instead of doing something for the gay and lesbian community, he is doing something that gets them ticked off. And I think that's indicative of his willingness to take on some of these groups in a way that tests their beliefs."

Obama's Cabinet choices may help lessen ill will.

Consider free trade. Unions were a major help to Obama during the campaign. Many union officials are staunch opponents of the North American Free Trade Agreement, saying it has cut employment and reduced wages. As a candidate, Obama seemed to straddle the NAFTA issue. And he chose as his chief trade representative Ron Kirk, a former Dallas mayor who has praised NAFTA. Kirk's appointment suggests Obama may not be so quick to rework the free trade accord.

Even if Obama's trade policies anger labor leaders, his choice for Labor secretary will help keep his political alliance intact. He picked Rep. Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte), who has voted with labor interests nearly 100% of the time in her eight-year congressional career.

Union leaders concede they weren't pleased by the Kirk appointment and what it means for hopes of scuttling NAFTA. But they're thrilled with Solis.

Thea Lee, policy director for the AFL-CIO, said of Obama's Cabinet: "There are certainly some members who are more oriented toward Wall Street and more centrist economic thinking than we are. So that gives us some pause. But we're confident that they're all people we can work with. Overall, it's an excellent Cabinet."

If Obama's Cabinet lacks a strong ideology, its main value may lie in its technical skills in delivering on the transformational agenda he promised.

One of the most prominent examples is former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

In choosing Daschle to lead Health and Human Services and revamp the nation's healthcare system, Obama seems intent on avoiding problems that doomed the last major attempt to improve healthcare. When Clinton pushed a healthcare overhaul in 1993 -- an initiative led by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton -- he was criticized for not working more cooperatively with Congress.

As a Capitol Hill veteran, Daschle is unlikely to repeat that mistake, healthcare advocates have said. They predicted he would court members of Congress in ways the Clinton team never did.

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