Barack Obama's emerging administration isn't just a "team of rivals," the phrase that historian Doris Kearns Goodwin uses to describe Abraham Lincoln's abrasive inner circle, and an approach that Obama openly admires. Actually, Obama's governing team is that and more, say experts, who admire the administration for its balance, diversity, and brainpower. These qualities reveal much about the president-elect and the way he will lead when he takes over as the nation's 44th president January 20.
The pattern is clear: Obama wants his government to be results-oriented and less ideological than his conservative critics had expected. He appears intent on making his White House staff, rather than the cabinet, the focal point of his administration, with himself as the epicenter. "First of all, he has placed a very high premium on the kind of experience that will enable him to get things done," says Bill Galston, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution who advised President Bill Clinton. Obama's team consists largely of experts in specific areas, such as Timothy Geithner as secretary of the treasury, Robert Gates as secretary of defense, and Eric Holder as attorney general, with few "big-picture thinkers" or academic intellectuals who would base their decisions on an all-encompassing philosophy or an inflexible ideology, as George W. Bush's team was often accused of doing. In sum, Obama is bringing in strong-willed leaders who won't hesitate to disagree with one another, and with the new president, at least until he makes a final decision and wants everyone on board. "This suggests the president-elect has enormous confidence in his ability to bring all this together," Galston says.
Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff for Clinton, says Obama's transition is "one of the more disciplined" that he's ever seen. "He really is reaching out for quality people so he gets the best advice possible to deal with these horrendous crises," Panetta says.
As he prepares to take power, Obama has a big advantage—public opinion. Most Americans like the job he's doing as president-elect, and, partly because of their confidence in him, 72 percent of likely voters expect a better economy in the next year, according to a December Reuters/Zogby Poll. Sixty-four percent say Obama will be able to "end U.S. involvement in Iraq," according to an ABC News/Washington Post survey.
But the other side of that equation can be unsettling. Expectations for Obama are so high that they will be very difficult to meet. And reality will intrude. It will, for example, remain exceedingly difficult to remove U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of Inauguration Day, as Obama has promised. The security and political conditions there are still fragile.
On the economy, which most Americans consider the most pressing issue of all, few foresee much improvement soon. "It will be a tough couple of years for him," says a former adviser to President Ronald Reagan. "Does there come a time when people transfer bitterness from George Bush [whose popularity is at rock bottom] to Obama if the economy fails to improve and expectations for Obama are dashed? That will be a big question."
As he constructs his administration, Obama has shown no hesitation about his capacity to lead, remarkable for a one-term senator from Illinois who has so little national or international experience. In fact, in many ways, the social topography of his government indicates that all roads will lead to the man at the top. He appears to be setting himself up as what Bush used to call "the decider," but in ways that Bush never allowed. He intends to be a strong commander in chief who will get involved in the details of policymaking and even the implementation of his programs, both foreign and domestic, Obama tells friends. He also plans to be the arbiter of major staff disputes, which Bush delegated to his chief of staff and other senior aides. Obama says he welcomes staff arguments and the free flow of ideas as a way to generate the best results, and aides say he will have no problem intervening in the inevitable internal donnybrooks.
It's possible, of course, that Obama has invested too much in his ability to move the system in Washington and lead a national movement for change. Just winning passage for the vast economic "rescue" package that he is promoting will be a huge challenge, and there are rising doubts in Washington that Congress will be able to pass it by the time Obama takes office, as he wants. "The problem is the plethora of details," says a senior GOP strategist, noting that it will take time to digest.
Conservatives are skeptical about some ideas that are being bandied about by Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress, such as a vast new federal spending program for infrastructure improvements. Many conservatives prefer a simpler solution of more tax cuts as a spur to growth instead of more spending. And a prominent Democrat agrees that the odds are against quick passage. The major sticking point probably will be the Senate, where the rules allow a minority of members to stop or stall legislation. On the other hand, Obama advisers argue that conservatives won't want to seem obstructionist in dealing with a popular new leader on an issue of such urgency and may go along after all.