Obama Names National Security Team

President-elect Obama announced today he's chosen Senator Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State and asked Robert Gates to stay in his position as Defense Secretary. NPR Political Editor Ken Rudin and BET Washington Bureau Chief Pamela Gentry discuss Obama's latest picks.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. My thanks to Korva Coleman for sitting in last week. Coming up on this World AIDS Day, we talk about the two million children living with HIV and AIDS around the world. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, there are another 50 days before Barack Obama is sworn in as president, but he is moving fast to fill key posts in his Cabinet and White House staff. Obama is expected to announce his national security team today after having assembled the critical players on his economic team last week. Here to talk about all these is NPR political editor Ken Rudin and Pamela Gentry. She is the Washington bureau chief and senior political producer for BET Networks. They're both here with me in the studio. Thanks so much for joining us.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Michel.

Ms. PAMELA GENTRY (Washington Bureau Chief and Senior Political Producer, BET Networks): It's a pleasure.

MARTIN: Ken Rudin, the highest profile Cabinet choice expected today is Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. This is been something that has been speculated about for days and former...

RUDIN: Weeks.

MARTIN: Weeks. And former president President Bill Clinton has promised to disclose the donors to his presidential library, something which had been a bone of contention. But what does she bring the job - to the job for good or for ill? Now, a lot of people of thought she could have been majority leader in the Senate.

RUDIN: Well, actually, she probably couldn't have, and that's the thing that probably made her make this decision. She was only 34th in Senate seniority, seniority on the Democratic side. She had made some inquiries about becoming majority leader. Harry Reid said, there's no way I'm giving this up. She wanted to run the health care. Ted Kennedy said, I'm not giving that up.

Basically, a lot the moves for her in the Senate were blocked, but at the same time, she is a worldwide-known person, first lady for eight years. Worldwide-known - immediately recognizable figure. Yes, she had differences with Barack Obama, especially on foreign policy. She may have been even more hawkish than Barack Obama, but this is, after all, Barack Obama's administration. It will be Barack Obama's foreign policy that she will implement. And she, probably better than anybody else, will have a key role as compared to previous secretaries of state.

MARTIN: Well, I want to hear more about that in a minute. But Pam Gentry, another announcement - I don't know whether this is expected today or perhaps later in the week, but it is also been discussed that Defense Secretary Robert Gates is being asked to stay on, at least for the time being. Again, Obama has said he plans a serious change of course in Iraq and in Afghanistan. So how is the blogosphere responding to these two moves or two figures who - even though Bob Gates was not part of the initial planning for the Iraq war or to the Afghanistan war and was brought in after all those plans had been made, in fact, the war was fully underway, both wars were fully underway - these are still two figures who are identified with both policy difference with Barack Obama and with previous administrations. So how is the blogosphere responding to this?

Ms. GENTRY: It's very odd because of the 28 or so alleged or unofficial or official appointees, almost 10 ten of them already have been from the Clinton administration, and that's been the first quizzical thing that a lot of people - these are neophytes in the political process that signed on in support of Barack Obama. So they don't understand the inside-the-Beltway conversations that we have about - from the Clinton administration or Gates staying on. It's - they're confused. They want to know - they thought there was going to be change. So I think there's going to have to be some work on the part of the Obama administration to explain why there is change even though I'm going to some of these tried-and-true names that you already know or that exist inside of Washington.

MARTIN: Ken, how is the administration-to-be, the Obama administration, incoming administration explaining how these appointments comport with their "change" message?

RUDIN: Well, as I earlier, of course, this is Barack Obama's policy, so that will certainly bring about a change from the past eight years of the Bush administration. But if you look at the other people who are - probably going to be named to the Cabinet, Eric Holder, attorney general, he certainly represents a major change from Alberto Gonzales, let's say, on human rights or things like that. Susan Rice will be the UN ambassador. She has made it clear from the beginning that things like Darfur, the atrocities in Darfur will not be allowed to go unchecked, unchallenged, and that, of course, will be a change too. It will be familiar names, you know, as Pam says, with Bob Gates and Hillary Clinton, but ultimately, this will be a Barack Obama administration.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit about Eric Holder, if you would. He'd be the first African-American attorney general. He was deputy attorney general interim in the Clinton administration. How is this appointment being received? Obviously, there is some talk about this controversial pardon that he signed off on in the closing days of the Clinton administration. Is that issue significant enough to cause a problem for him at confirmation, Ken?

RUDIN: It is probably an irritant. I think it will come up, and I think Republicans will mention it. I don't think it's anything that could torpedo his nomination. I don't think anybody on either side of the aisle - first of all, this is a Senate with at least 58 Democrats, so I don't think anybody will be concerned about that. What people may be most concerned about is that Barack Obama is intending to elevate the position of UN ambassador to Cabinet-level position, and that could have a little conflict between Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton, if you buy this argument, in that the fact that Susan Rice started her -got her bona fides from the Clinton administration, broke with the Clinton's by endorsing Barack Obama early, and there's supposed to be - who knows? - but there is supposed to be some resentment between the Susan Rice and the Hillary Clinton wings. Again, this is a family feud that Mr. Obama will love to have to deal with come January 28th.

MARTIN: So did his choice for Commerce secretary, Bill Richardson. I mean, he served in the Clinton administration, also endorsed Obama after running for president himself.

RUDIN: Now it's one big happy family.

MARTIN: OK. We'll see. Pam Gentry, talk about the Eric Holder appointment and also the overall question of diversity, if you would.

Ms. GENTRY: Well, so far, it looks as if the diversibility is taking in, except for the Washington connection. I mean, that seems to be, but there are a lot of Chicago land folks that are coming into the administration. I think that he is going to have to look outside of the - in the other 49 states. I mean, you can't have everyone from either Washington, D.C. or Chicago. So I think there is going to have to be a little bit more diversity in that.

As far as women go, Janet Napoliano, the...

MARTIN: Napolitano.

Ms. GENTRY: Napolitano is the only outsider in the sense that she is coming from outside the Beltway, and her name is going to - she's looking at going to be secretary of Homeland Security. I think that he is...

MARTIN: Which is a critical position for the largest civilian agencies and major responsibility for the immigration issue, which she has been addressing as governor of Arizona.

Ms. GENTRY: So I think she is probably the freshest blood right now. Of course, they have not gone to the Labor secretary yet, but I think when they look at Labor, they're going to look outside the Beltway, and a couple of those contenders are very diverse. They're looking at the Los Angeles mayor. They're looking at the governor of Michigan. So I think those are new names, new faces, and they surely couldn't hurt.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you are listening to tell me more from NPR News. We're speaking with NPR's Ken Rudin and BET's Pamela Gentry about President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet picks and his White House staff.

Let's talk about the economic team. The markets reacted favorably after he picked Timothy Geithner for the Treasury Department last week. He has also selected former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker for key posts. Ken, again, this whole question of sort of change versus experience, now on one hand...

RUDIN: They've already done that, exactly, and these are names that have been familiar, and of course, if these people have such experience on Wall Street, a lot of people are saying that Wall Street is the one thing you want to get away from. If they had such good experience, why are we in the mess we're in?

MARTIN: I mean, on the other hand, the markets reacted favorably to the Geithner appointment. Why do you think that is?

RUDIN: Well, there is - because obviously he did something. This was the most critical appointment he needed to make. He couldn't wait on this. There was some concern that he was maybe just bypassing the economy and looking at foreign policy and things like that, but no. The economy seems to be a key issue for him. He acted fast, but again, also, if we go back to the foreign policy thing, Robert Gates, people like that are calling for more troops in Afghanistan. Again, as Pam said earlier, if we're talking about change, where is the change that we have? Robert Gates has conducted and run the Iraqi war policy for the last two years. If we have people like that running the Defense Department, then where is the change?

I still argue that if you look at the - the world looks at the UN. They see Susan Rice at the UN, they see Barack Obama in the White House. That in itself is change, and I think the policies will follow.

MARTIN: And Pam, what about this question of the strong personalities, like - Ken just mentioned this perceived(ph) - and who knows whether this is yet more sort of sexist claptrap, you know, two women in the same sort of policy or people assume that there has to be some cat fights, so who knows what's behind it or if there's some substance behind it - but you got, you know, Larry Summers, a very strong personality. One of the things that the Obama campaign was known for was the "no drama Obama" theme...

Ms. GENTRY: Right.

MARTIN: Which we do not want to hear a lot of drama; we don't want a lot of leaks. Is there a thought now that they can maintain that kind of harmony, calmness with such strong personalities, which all have such key issues?

Ms. GENTRY: I'm sure that everyone's going to be watching, especially the media, to see if they can do it. But the differences here is that Senator Obama or President-elect Obama now has always said he wants different opinions at the table, that he wants to listen to people even that he doesn't agree with. He's never led us to believe that he can't handle controversy or people having different opinions. So we'll really have to see if any of that plays out.

But I think that he has chose some very strong people in almost all of these roles, and I'm sure he's going to have to manage the drama. But again, he managed a campaign that we never - haven't seen before. And if he, again, brings his rivals to the table, it's - you're going to have to expect that we're going to see how he manages it.

MARTIN: Ken, we have a couple of minutes left, so if you could bring us up to date on what's happening in the Congress and these Congressional seats. Apparently, there are still two Senate seats that are contested. Tell us about that.

RUDIN: Well, there's a runoff on Tuesday in Georgia, where Saxby Chambliss got a 49.8 percent of the vote on November 4th, enough to be ahead of his Democrat opponent, Jim Martin, but not enough to have a majority which is required by Georgia law. So they have a runoff Tuesday. Al Gore, Bill Clinton, a cast of thousands have called for Jim Martin, as has Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Sarah Palin have all campaigned for Saxby Chambliss. It's one the Republicans desperately want - they are arguing that...

MARTIN: What's the argument?

RUDIN: The argument is that if Jim Martin is elected, he'll be another rubber stamp for Barack Obama, that he'll be close to the 60 seats, the Democratic seats in the Senate that will make the Republican Party impotent, and they don't want that. Also Minnesota, they're still hand counting that between incumbent Republican Norm Coleman and Democratic challenger Al Franken. There's like 150 votes separating the two out of 2.9 million votes. If there's any - if there's ever been an argument that every vote counts, here's a perfect argument.

And then we also have to do - what does David Patterson, the governor of New York, do with Hillary Clinton's Senate seat? What does Governor Rod Blagojevich do in Illinois with Barack Obama's Senate seat? So they have those two Senate seats that have be to be decided as well.

MARTIN: But there's no question that those will go to Democrats - the Illinois and the New York seats. So how effective is this argument that you can't give Barack Obama a rubber stamp? Does that seem to be resonating? Because on the one hand you say the Republican brand has been so damaged over the course of the last couple of weeks. Thirty seconds, Ken. What do you think?

RUDIN: True, but you do have - the Republican John McCain did carry Georgia. Saxby Chambliss did get the most votes in Georgia. There's still a Republican base in Georgia. If anywhere that argument is going to work, it's in the state of Georgia.

MARTIN: What about - well, that's a recount, so we don't really - there's not a runoff yet.

RUDIN: They're still counting stuff that happened on November 4th.

MARTIN: Wow. Well, you know, at least we have something to keep ourselves excited, right?

RUDIN: We're still employed.

Ms. GENTRY: Yeah, that's right.

MARTIN: We're still employed, which is very important. Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor, our political junkie. And Pamela Gentry is the Washington bureau chief and senior political producer for BET Networks. They were both kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thanks so much.

RUDIN: Thank you.

Ms. GENTRY: Thank you.

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