Nov 22, 2008

World - US;Obama Team - Choices likely to reflect pragmatic approach

Daniel Dombey and Andrew Ward

As president-elect Barack Obama’s likely choices for his cabinet took shape on Friday, his most fervent supporters could be excused a touch of disappointment.

Rather than prizing past allegiance to Mr Obama, the incoming president’s transition team gives every impression of having opted for names that are familiar and respected on the world stage

Mr Obama’s likely appointment of Hillary Clinton, the former Democratic presidential candidate, reflects an emerging pattern of pragmatic and centrist choices for the new administration’s top slots. The president-elect has also shown an appetite for stocking his cabinet with some of the most high-profile figures in US politics – several of them former rivals.

There are few modern parallels for Mr Obama’s push to appoint Mrs Clinton, his opponent during one of the most bitter primary fights of recent times.

Such a move would pass over Bill Richardson, the former energy secretary and ambassador to the United Nations, who was labelled a “Judas” by the Clinton camp after he endorsed Mr Obama during the primaries.

However, Mr Richardson may yet win another, lesser post in the administration, such as commerce secretary.

“Having been around the world in the UN, he [Mr Richardson] has a sense for how important trade is, how much trade is part of a foreign policy strategy, the fact that it does lead to better relations with countries all over the world,” Carlos Gutierrez, the current commerce secretary, told Fox News on Friday.

As if to underline that he is looking for more than loyalty, Mr Obama is reportedly considering giving the national security adviser job to James Jones, a former top Nato military commander and friend of John McCain, who went so far as to travel with Mr Obama’s then Republican rival during the presidential campaign.

Even while at Nato, the 6ft 4in former marine took a particular interest in energy security. Just this week he unveiled an energy strategy for the new president – an approach that fits in with the Obama team’s interest in updating national security policy to incorporate financial, economic and energy issues.

Another top contender for the national security adviser post is James Steinberg, who served as deputy adviser during Bill Clinton’s presidency, and is considered to be a more likely choice than Susan Rice, the foreign policy adviser who was at Mr Obama’s side throughout his 22-month campaign.

Since Mr Obama has already begun negotiating terms for retaining Robert Gates, George W. Bush’s defence secretary, such appointments would mean that all three top national security appointments in his administration would go to figures who had little or nothing to do with his presidential bid – and still less with his call for change.

As a result, a whole host of Obama foreign policy advisers – particularly those who sided with him early in the campaign – face uncertain prospects as they jostle for appointments in the new administration.

They are neither “owed” jobs by the most likely occupants of the state, defence and national security posts, nor can they be sure that, even if they are selected, they will have a harmonious existence with the new appointees.

Mr Obama’s apparent decision to brush aside such concerns reflects his desire to choose the strongest team available.

It also comes amid expectations that the president-elect will devote most of his attention to the US’s struggling economy – at least at the start of his administration – so giving many of his appointees broad authority in the national security domain.

His likely choices have already garnered widespread bipartisan praise – with Mrs Clinton being lauded by the likes of Henry Kissinger, the former secretary of state – as the Obama transition team has also made overtures to Republicans in Congress and beyond.

“You have to say it: these guys are reaching out more than the Bush administration ever did,” said a Republican aide on Capitol Hill.

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