Can President-Elect Obama Manage His Team of Egos?

Obama has assembled a powerful team that is full of experience, and opinions.

By SHARE
Interactive: Obama Transition 2009

Some are calling it a team of rivals. Others consider it a team of centrists. But President-elect Barack Obama's core group of advisers might be more aptly described as a team of egos. 

"He does have this challenge," says Princeton historian Julian Zelizer. "It's not a modest cabinet by any stretch of the imagination. These are people of opinions and experience," and they won't be shy about "pushing the president" to adopt their ideas. The question is whether Obama will be strong enough to manage the egos around him—and distill from the resulting tensions and rivalries the best policies for the nation without allowing his government to descend into constant infighting, as happened under President Jimmy Carter and other chief executives. 

On Monday, Obama took another step toward assembling his governing team when he named New York Sen. Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, tapped retired Marine Gen. James Jones as White House national security adviser, and announced that he would keep Robert Gates as secretary of defense. Each brings deeply held views, a wealth of experience, and more continuity than change to the emerging Obama presidency. 

Obama defeated Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination this year after an often bitter campaign. Obama said Clinton showed bad judgment by voting for President Bush's Iraq war resolution, and Clinton suggested that Obama was too inexperienced to deal effectively with a "3 a.m. phone call" signaling a sudden crisis. An added complication for Obama now is that former President Bill Clinton, Hillary's husband, has his own ideas about foreign policy and has been active on global issues since he left office in 2001. 

Gates has served in the administrations of both President George H. W. Bush and President George W. Bush and has faithfully promoted the current policies in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in the "war on terrorism," all of which Obama has criticized. But Gates is also an excellent manager who is popular in the Pentagon, and he can shore up Obama's meager defense credentials. Gates will now be responsible for drawing down U.S. troops in Iraq, which Obama has pledged to do as quickly as possible. 

Jones is a former career Marine officer and former NATO commander who has been critical of the management of the war in Afghanistan. His selection as national security adviser is designed to signal that Obama will be cautious and tough-minded in making decisions about national security.

But all three—Clinton, Gates, and Jones—are known as powerful advocates of their positions who won't hesitate to make their cases, even if they contradict one another.

Overall, Obama is populating his cabinet and senior White House staff with a variety of strong-willed individuals, which could make ego management a top priority. On Monday, Obama said his team shares "a core vision of what's needed to keep the American people safe" but that he also wanted "strong personalities and strong opinions."

"I think that's how the best decisions are made," the president-elect told reporters. "One of the dangers in the White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in 'groupthink,' and everybody agrees with everything, and there is no discussion, and there are no dissenting views."

In addition to naming Clinton, Gates, and Jones, Obama has chosen seasoned, aggressive people for other key jobs, including White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel; economics adviser Larry Summers, a former treasury secretary under Bill Clinton; Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, the incoming secretary of homeland security; and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. And, of course, Vice President-elect Joe Biden will be at Obama's side—and the longtime senator from Delaware is no shrinking violet.