Obama's Conservative Voice and the Biden Factor

Biden can't be ruled out as a power player in the Obama administration.

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President-elect Barack Obama has selected his cabinet and assembled most of his senior White House staff. As Inauguration Day approaches, he is ready, as one of his senior aides says, to "hit the ground running." The social topography of any administration is always a good guide to how a new chief executive will govern, and that's certainly true in Obama's case. He is surrounding himself with a diverse combination of centrists and liberals, experienced Washington players and newcomers to the capital, loyalists from his campaign and people he barely knowsall with the goal of delivering results as quickly as possible. In this series, U.S. News looks at Obama's team and explores what it will mean for governing the country.

The conservative voice. Defense Secretary Robert Gates could have the loneliest job in the administration as the only high-profile holdover from the Bush administration. He has loyally served the current president and also advised George H. W. Bush, the incumbent's father. Gates is expected to provide a more conservative series of options to address many national-security problems, including the central issue of how to honorably withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq and at the same time beef up American forces in Afghanistan, which Obama has endorsed.

The Biden factor. Vice President-elect Joe Biden has been making so little news lately (except for buying a German shepherd puppy) that some of his admirers wonder if he is being marginalized. But Biden can't be ruled out as a power player. He knows Washington after serving in the Senate for three decades and has particular expertise in foreign policy and legal issues. As the official No. 2 in the government, Biden will have a special role and has been assured of close consultation with Obama whenever he wants it, including a weekly private sit-down over lunch. "He may end up as the liberal voice on a range of economic and social policies," says a senior Democrat who is close to the transition team. Biden has a secret weapon: Ron Klain, his chief of staff, served in the same job for Vice President Al Gore and is a talented inside player.

Aside from the clarity about the power centers of the new administration, the transition has provided some insights into Obama himself. America is learning that he can be very decisive and can move quickly when he has to, although he likes to be contemplative. Some centrist Democrats are concerned that he may be too decisive and may go too far toward expanding the federal role in society. "If he goes hellbent for leather in that direction, he may be seen as pushing for too much government," says a former aide to Bill Clinton.

Obama needs to show, above all, that he will move aggressively and immediately to get the economy out of the ditch, some experts say. "It can't be perceived as deadlock," says Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster and former adviser to Bill Clinton. If Obama can get Washington moving again and at the same time demonstrate that he has the middle class's interests at heart, the American people will probably give him a longer honeymoon than many expect, despite the urgent problems facing the country.