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Let’s Hope That Personnel Isn’t Policy

January 15, 2009

It wasn’t to be expected that the Obama team would be able to pick only squeaky clean characters for the positions in their administration. It is a sad truth that those are just very hard to find when you also want the persons to have some other job qualifications like experience in the realm in which they are supposed to work. While the fact that some of Obama’s would-be employees carry some suspicious luggage is not a big story, the way the President-elect handles the individual cases can be revealing.

First there was Rahm Emmanuel who may or may not have known about Blagojevich’s pay-for-play scheme. Either way, M Emmanuel is too close and too important to M Obama to get sacrificed, so the only way out is denial of any wrongdoing. This would probably have been done by anybody in the same situation.

Then there was Bill Richardson who – quite miraculously – lost all interest in serving in the incoming President’s cabinet after word got out that the governor of New Mexico might have run a pay-for-play on his own. Remarkably, even after Richardson withdrew, the Obama team found it necessary to kick the man on the ground – however deservedly or undeservedly he got there – by saying that it was the governor who had not been straightforward with them. This may well be true, but why mention it? It doesn’t free the Obama transition team of the impression that their vetting has not been as thorough as it should have been. As Richardson’s people pointed out, news stories about the problematic case where readily available since summer last year. And since the governor was so forthcoming as to quietly stand down without insisting on his innocence or on his right to get that cabinet post and therewith force Obama to – gasp! – make a decision, it would have been a nice gesture by the transition team to just leave the pointless finger pointing (pun intended).

Mme Clinton’s working relationship with her husband and his donors aren’t a surprise either. Obama picked her to win forgiveness from the Clinton backers who were peeved about how she got treated during and after the campaign. This is definitely not “change you can believe in” but rather “cynical political opportunism as usual.” But who is the French Cowboy to complain. He lacked the faith to get into Obama Heaven from the start, so he isn’t too disappointed to learn that the place doesn’t exist.

Timothy Geithner’s case is interesting, especially in comparison to Richardson’s. Geithner repeatedly accepted refunds for taxes he never paid (although he should have paid them). Obama readily admits that he knew about this, but called the behaviour “honest mistakes” and a “source” said that “[i]t was put into calculation and at the end of the calculation, he was still the best person for the job.” In other words, they could not or would not find anyone just as competent and widely acceptable as M Geithner but with a cleaner shirt. Somehow I think that Richardson must be in a grumpy mood these days.

Then there is Leon Panetta as director of the CIA. If ever there was a political pick then it was this one. (Oh, or maybe that was the Clinton pick. Or maybe the Richardson pick. Or Shinseki?) Panetta – and great minds agree on that – is totally inexperienced on intelligence issues. Apparently, Obama’s wish to give the left the impression that the CIA will be all rainbows and unicorns and politically correct laughter got the better of him when he opted for Clinton’s former chief of staff. Ironically, Panetta is not the ideal man for this either, as it turns out, since he was involved in extraordinary renditions executed by the Clinton administration. (It may be news to some that extraordinary renditions are not an invention by the Evil Bush.) It will be interesting to see how Obama will defend his choice of Panetta. The same is true about Eric Holder who probably has the most tainted history of all the staff picks.

If personnel is policy then Obama has already lost. In face of the trade-off between experience and innocence, Obama gave up on the latter. Sometimes on both. His team doesn’t look particularly inspired and gives no reason to expect that Washington will be any less corrupt or cynical or opportunistic in the coming years than it was in the past.

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