Saturday, November 22, 2008


More than anything else, honeymoons are about love, whether it happens to be sexual, romantic, or simply affection for one’s neighbor. Whether that “neighbor” happens to be a hotel busboy or a beach rat who sells snorkeling gear, honeymooners are treated with warmth and can hardly help reciprocating. As infectious as fear can be in a hospital, that’s how infectious love can be during a honeymoon.

Bill Clinton never received a proper honeymoon. Neither did George W. Bush. When first elected, they didn’t receive the majority of the national vote, and their enemies never let them forget it. Clinton was viewed as “Slick Willie” by the titans of talk radio, who spoke for much of the American public. As for George W. Bush, many questioned whether his election was even legitimate and lawful. That’s no way for a man to begin his tenure in the world’s most challenging job. It’s no wonder that their Presidencies were marked, respectively, by impeachment and the lowest approval rating in the history of Presidential polls.

Well, that was then, and this is now. Never in my lifetime have I seen a President-elect enjoy a honeymoon like Barack Obama. Here in D.C., three to five million folks are expected to descend on the National Mall for the inauguration. It’s as if Barack is the Beatles in ’65, and half the nation is a 15 year old girl. Yesterday, I heard a story about how a mother stopped a six-year-old kid from whining. The kid had been complaining about having been treated unfairly by her older sister when the mother calmly said “when Barack Obama is President, everything will be fair.” As if on cue, the child shut her mouth and smiled.

Some would call that creepy. To me, it’s just a well-deserved honeymoon.

Given the amount of Kool-Aid that I myself have consumed about our President-elect, my objective in this post will be difficult to attain. Stated simply, I’d like to be as unbiased and balanced as possible about the progress Barack has made to form a new government. The mere fact that I would call the guy “Barack” even though I’ve only met him for about 20 seconds should tell you to take everything I say with a grain of salt … but what is Empathic Rationalism if not a philosophy that prides itself on at least attempting to be objective. So here goes:

Let’s start with the good news. Nothing that has transpired in the past 18 days has caused Barack to lose a scintilla of good will among his supporters. Oh, there were a few folks who despaired that he wasn’t more involved in solving our economic crisis, but it’s not like he’s been sitting around doing nothing. In two and a half weeks, he appears to have selected, in addition to a Chief of Staff and a number of distinguished senior advisors, an Attorney General and Secretaries of State, Commerce, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Defense, and Treasury. When he made the last selection, the Dow jumped 500 points. If I didn’t know better, I’d think his name wasn’t Barack but Midas.

Better yet, the group Barack is assembling is exceptionally bright and experienced. And talk about diverse – Washington hasn’t seen such diversity since James Watt boasted about his staff having “a black, a woman, two Jews and a cripple.” I’m not sure who the “cripple” will be on Barack’s cabinet, but if he has one, I don’t doubt that he or she will have a thick resume and an outstanding academic pedigree. I may have gone to Harvard Law School, but every day that Barack is making appointments, I get reminded that I never made Law Review. With this crowd, “cum laude” won’t cut it.

That Barack would be devoted to principles of meritocracy and diversity is hardly surprising. Nobody expected another “Brownie” to be running FEMA, let alone the State Department. But I have to say, nobody I know expected Foggy Bottom to be turned over to Hillary either. So far, that’s been the head shaker of the fortnight.

I won’t lie to you. My first reaction upon hearing that Hillary was in consideration for the Secretary of State job was to wince. Even now, I’m too risk averse to favor the appointment. But … and it’s a big but … at least I can see a potentially enormous upside to Hillary’s selection. When I reflect on the other contenders for the job, not one excites me. Looking at the matter strictly from the standpoint of the assets they would bring to the table, no candidate is as qualified as Hillary.

Consider, for a moment, the breadth and depth of Hillary’s portfolio. When it comes to world leaders, she knows them and they know her. The Clinton “brand” is immensely popular internationally, and Hillary was never seen as a mere first lady, but as a force to be reckoned with. Moreover, by all accounts, she is a brilliant woman -- knowledgeable, intellectually curious, and a quick study. Few if any legislators command the respect she is given on Capitol Hill, and that is due not merely to the power of her mind but to the strength of her personality. Many have attested to how impressed they were upon getting to meet Hillary individually or in a small group. Finally, when you think about Hillary as a spokesperson, no characteristics stand out more than her discipline and her doggedness. It’s difficult to imagine her putting her mind to something and not fighting tooth and nail to make it happen.

Put all of the above together, and you have the makings of a remarkable diplomat. Barack couldn’t help but recognize that fact, and after battling Hillary for nearly a year and a half, he could hardly be blind to her talents. Consider also that Barack campaigned on a platform of unity, and what can be more unifying than to see Obama and Clinton – the two rivals who captivated our entire nation for much of the winter and spring – put their minds together and fight for peace, environmental sanity, and other national goals? Hillary would have to give up her Senate job permanently in order to join the Cabinet, and if she did so, it would be with the understanding that she would serve at the will of the President. She’s surely smart enough to understand that if she tries to “go rogue,” as was said about Sarah Palin, Barack would be well within his rights to fire her and send her into retirement. So all her motivation would be placed behind the task of making this great experiment work – for her, for Barack, for the country, and for the world.

Put that way, the nomination doesn’t sound so crazy, does it?

Well, it’s not crazy. But that doesn’t necessarily make it wise, either. My concerns would be lessened if the Secretary of State’s job consisted solely of shuttle diplomacy. Unfortunately, the Secretary also has to run a huge bureaucracy – the State Department – and when Hillary was given the opportunity to run something equally massive (her campaign), she ran it into the ground. I attribute that failure to an authoritarian culture that de-values flexibility and openness to the facts on the ground and is impressed more with good old-fashioned political “clout.” It’s not exactly compatible with the kind of grass-roots atmosphere that Barack brought to his campaign. (Just try to imagine Barack turning over his campaign to Marc Penn and you’ll immediately see what I’m talking about.)

Already, we’ve been hearing reports in the media about clashes between “Hillary’s people” and “Barack’s people.” Excuse me, but I thought the entire Administration was supposed to be staffed with Barack’s people. Wasn’t that the idea? Wasn’t Hillary supposed to be one of those people? Separation of powers is a great concept, but I don’t think it works well to have multiple fiefdoms within the Executive Branch.

In short, if Hillary were to treat her appointment as an opportunity to implement the vision of Barack Obama, I’ll be all for it. But my concern is that she sees herself as too important to be a mere functionary And if my fears are confirmed, and she or her staff try to do pave their own trail instead of Barack’s, it could get ugly. Barack won’t want to fire Hillary within the first year or two – talk about a formula for ugly press – and so he might be willing to tolerate things coming out of State that a President shouldn’t have to tolerate. The result could be a message to overseas leaders that is incoherent, and thus ineffective.

There you have it -- the one cloud on the horizon. Well, OK. There’s also the God-awful economy that Barack is inheriting. But even in Barbados, where my wife and I honeymooned, you sometimes see clouds. For the most part, what I see is sunshine. Unlike that six year old, I don’t foresee Barack eliminating unfairness from the world, but I do see him exuding more competence than any American leader of his generation. And what I see even clearer is a nation, if not a world, that is desperate for him to succeed. It will be a rocky road for a while – thanks to the greedy bastards who have destroyed our economy while the regulator-ideologues have been sleeping – but we have the right captain at the helm. If the worst decision he’s made so far is nominating a brilliant, charismatic, passionate, disciplined, diligent, internationally-beloved fighter to head up the State Department, I’d say he’s off to a great start.


Betty C. said...

The Clinton nomination will be a big step to unifying the Democratic party for years to come.

Although Barack ran on a rather "party-less" platform, one mustn't forget what this victory represents for the Democrats, and what this loss represents for the Republicans.

I say it's a wise choice.

Daniel Spiro said...

Betty, I hope you're right. A unified Democratic party is a devastating force. If such a force could be established, it would be very interesting to see whether this would move the GOP to the left.

Betty C. said...

Well everybody knows that the G.O.P. is in total disarray.

It's interesting because the socialist party (one of France's two major parties, which you probably know but just in case) is experiencing a real meltdown here. Maybe you've read about it.

Daniel Spiro said...


I know very little about the French socialist party. I know who's in power over there, but not the "inside baseball" part of French politics.

It's ironic that with the economic meltdown and all the depression talk that the French socialists are falling apart. You'd think the socialist talk would increase at a time like this.

Betty C. said...

Well, they're really socialists in name only, not socialists as Sarah Palin might interpret it!

The party has been victim of a lot of ugly public infighting, and ran a disastrous candidate in the last Presidential elections -- ones they supposedly "couldn't lose."

It's a long story. I'm not as interested in French politics as American ones because I can't really support either main party.