Interpreting Obama's Cabinet Picks

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President-elect Barack Obama has filled half of his cabinet less than one month after the election. Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving explores the common themes in Obama' choices and what obstacles his picks may face.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now, for some analysis with NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving. And, Ron, let's pick up where Don left off and talk about Robert Gates over at the Pentagon and James Jones as national security adviser. What did these two men - their appointment - what does that say to the rest of the world about President-elect Barack Obama's foreign policy priorities?

RON ELVING: It tells the rest of the world and it tells Americans as well that his primary concern is for continuity, and that he wants to have the security that comes out of the Bush years without some of the policies of the Bush years that he believes have actually reduced our national security, and that, of course, includes the war in Iraq.

BRAND: And James Jones, I think, has been especially critical that we - he has been quoted as saying we took our eye off the ball and that the real action we need to focus on is in Afghanistan.

ELVING: There have always been people at the highest levels of the American military establishment, uniform and civilian, who have felt that the emphasis on Iraq starting in the first Bush term was in error, and that we should have stayed focused on Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and some of our relationship with Pakistan.

And I think a lot of the events of just the last few days and certainly the last several years have borne out that point of view, and it has now risen to power in the person of James Jones to be the national security adviser.

BRAND: And does he share the same philosophy with Senator Clinton?

ELVING: I think Senator Clinton is prepared to carry forward into her service as secretary of state the change of heart that she underwent in the last several years regarding the war in Iraq. She was for it in the first place. She saw it as necessary in the wake of 9/11. She was, after all, the senator from New York, and she was, I think, in fairness, we can say, anticipating running for president at some future date against a Republican who would try to make her seem relatively a lightweight on national security.

She has seen it all in a different light, of course, and in running for president in 2008, while she did not ever say she had made a mistake, and she never really repudiated her vote for the war, she did make it clear that she had changed her mind about it. So, I think that she is in harmony with the general thinking of the other members of the national security and foreign policy team here, including, of course, the president-elect himself.

BRAND: Although the president-elect did say that there would be disagreements when it came to how to approach his foreign policy objectives, he doesn't seem to be shying away from that. Where are some of those disagreements?

ELVING: There could be disagreements with respect to how we deal with foreign leaders who are particularly of a mind to give the United States fits, let us say, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, for example, other foreign leaders perhaps who might emerge in Pakistan or might emerge in other countries who are not in power there now, possibly also including Iraq.

Barack Obama has said, we should sit down, and we should talk to those people without the kind of preconditions that the Bush administration set, which were essentially, you must dismantle your own policies that we object to before we will negotiate with you. That could be a point of disagreement because Hillary Clinton in the past has belittled that as either naive or as being misguided.

BRAND: Yeah. I was just going to ask you about that. Has she come around and will she now follow the president-elect's goals in that arena?

ELVING: Whether she has come around to his point of view entirely or not, she will follow his goals in that area because that will be her job. There's a great potential here with Joe Biden as vice president and with the strong personality of Hillary Clinton and some of these other personalities who are involved, there is the possibility that there will be a great deal of clash.

And you heard in the press conference Barack Obama addressing that issue and saying that he didn't bring them together to be an echo chamber, that they were not intended to be groupthink, to use his word. But in the end, it will be - the test will be whether the president has the strength of personality and will to impose his own view on his team whatever their rivalrous or whatever their disagreeing points of view.

BRAND: And I assume there won't any big road bumps to Hillary Clinton's confirmation in the Senate, right?

ELVING: Nothing that would really prevent her from being confirmed and overwhelmingly confirmed. I think where she might actually get a little more flack is not from the Republicans, but from some of the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

I'm thinking of Russell Feingold here, possibly Jim Webb, the senator from Virginia. These are people who have opposed the war from the very beginning and who have not been shy about pointing out that they were against the war right from the beginning. And they might want to have a little session with her to see how she may have changed her thinking about it.

BRAND: NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving, thank you.

ELVING: Thank you, Madeleine.

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Obama Names Hillary Clinton, Gates To Cabinet

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President-elect Obama arrives to announce Sen. Hillary Clinton as his choice for secretary of state. i

President-elect Obama arrives to announce Sen. Hillary Clinton (left) as his choice for secretary of state during a news conference in Chicago, as retired Gen. Jim Jones and Vice President-Elect Biden (right) look on. Jim Watson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Watson/Getty Images
President-elect Obama arrives to announce Sen. Hillary Clinton as his choice for secretary of state.

President-elect Obama arrives to announce Sen. Hillary Clinton (left) as his choice for secretary of state during a news conference in Chicago, as retired Gen. Jim Jones and Vice President-Elect Biden (right) look on.

Jim Watson/Getty Images

Focus On National Security

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President-elect Barack Obama introduced Sen. Hillary Clinton, his archrival in the 2008 Democratic presidential race, as his secretary of state on Monday.

"I have known Hillary Clinton as a friend, a colleague, a source of counsel, and as a campaign opponent. She possesses an extraordinary intelligence and toughness, and a remarkable work ethic," said Obama, speaking at a news conference in Chicago where he has been managing his transition. "Hillary's appointment is a sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances."

In introducing his national security team, Obama said he will keep Robert Gates as secretary of defense. "I will be giving Secretary Gates and our military a new mission as soon as I take office: responsibly ending the war in Iraq through a successful transition to Iraqi control," Obama said.

A reporter later asked about Obama's plans to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq in 16 months after his inauguration on Jan. 20.

Obama replied, "I said that I would remove our combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, with the understanding that it might be necessary — likely to be necessary — to maintain a residual force to provide potential training, logistical support, to protect our civilians in Iraq."

The president-elect also formally nominated Eric Holder as attorney general, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security and Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations. Obama named retired Gen. Jim Jones as his national security adviser.

By choosing Clinton as his secretary of state, Obama may be solving several problems. Because of her long, variegated political experience, Clinton advocates say, the former first lady is one of the most qualified people for the top diplomatic position.

Political observers also believe that Clinton's inclusion in Obama's inner circle goes a long way toward salving the disappointment of many Democrats who preferred Clinton over Obama.

And by bringing Clinton into his Cabinet, Obama removes a possibly prickly opponent from the Senate floor. "Clinton is giving up her independent political base by being taken out of the Senate," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "She is now under his thumb."

The recurring theme of the news conference was two-pronged: The U.S. faces a vast number of threats, and it will take a concerted national effort and cooperation with other nations to address those threats.

After the announcement, Obama asked the members of his new team to say a few words each.

A smiling Clinton said, "I will give this assignment, your administration and our country my all." She thanked her New York constituents. She also said the U.S. must be "a force for positive change."

Striking the major notes of the day, Clinton emphasized that the U.S. must develop "more partners" and "fewer adversaries."

As Americans watched Obama on TV, his face was framed by his challenges: In a small box in the corner of the screen, the Dow fell steeply; in the news crawl along the bottom, there were headlines of increasing tensions between India and Pakistan.

Answering questions following the announcements, Obama spoke of the danger of "groupthink" in the White House and said he looks forward to vigorous debate among his advisers. But he added that he will be responsible for setting policy. "I will expect these people to implement this vision," he said.

Obama was asked about India's right to retaliate against the perpetrators of last week's attacks in Mumbai. "Sovereign nations obviously have a right to protect themselves," he said.

"We cannot tolerate a world in which innocents are being killed by extremists based on twisted ideologies," Obama said. "And we're going to have to bring the full force of our power — not only military, but also diplomatic, economic and political — to deal with those threats, not only to keep America safe, but also to ensure that peace and prosperity can exist around the world."

Asked about choosing his former political enemy as his secretary of state, Obama said that he and Hillary Clinton share similar views. "America has to be safe and secure," he said.

The president-elect was asked whether the reappointment of Gates satisfies Obama's desire to have a Republican in the Cabinet. Obama responded that he is not absolutely positive that Gates, who was appointed by President Bush, is a Republican. "I didn't check his voter registration," Obama said.

Asked one more time about the thought process that led him to Clinton, Obama smiled and said, "I was always interested after the primary was over in finding ways we could collaborate."

Noticeably absent from the news conference was discussion of Clinton's husband, former president Bill Clinton, who oversees a global philanthropic foundation. The Associated Press reports that the former president assured Obama's transition team that he would take steps — such as handing over a donor list and refusing certain donations — to avoid apparent conflicts of interest and to increase transparency in the way his foundation deals with international governments and contributors. Bill Clinton also agreed to relinquish day-to-day control of the foundation while his wife is a Cabinet member. That cleared the way for Hillary Clinton's appointment.

When the news conference was over, Obama walked off the stage with Clinton, a hand on her shoulder.

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