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Obama's All-Star Roster

Looking at the tableau of Barack Obama with his national-security team -- this potentially unruly roster of all-stars -- what was striking was how much Obama himself dominated the session. He looked presidential in a way he hadn’t before -- and by that, I mean that he looked older, his face newly creased by fatigue and a recognition that he now carries the weight of the world on his shoulders -- and also more ready to lead.

Obama explained that he decided to bring all these big egos together because he wants to avoid the “groupthink” that often afflicts a new administration. He wants debate and dissent within his cabinet, he said, not sweetness and light. He’s likely to get more friction than he expects, but nobody can say that he walked into this one blind. And he sounded convincing when he repeated the ritual Harry Truman line, “The buck stops here.”

Managing an all-star team isn’t easy, and I had worried that with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Bill Clinton in her suitcase, and “what-about-me?” Vice President Joe Biden wandering backstage, Obama was setting himself up for a fall. He was ceding to others the conduct of foreign policy, which is his biggest potential opportunity as president. I still think that’s a problem, but I was reassured by the body language of today’s cabinet rollout. This is Obama’s team; he’s clearly in charge. You could see that he wasn’t diminished by the proximity of strong personalities; quite the opposite.

As a check against jostling between Hillary Clinton’s State Department and Obama’s White House (of which there will be plenty, let’s be honest), there was the forbidding presence of retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones; not a man that anyone would want to play games with.

Susan Rice will be a power in her own right as ambassador to the United Nations. As an African American, she will symbolize the Obama difference that has aroused so much interest around the world, and created so many opportunities. Nasty dissent-mongers in the press would note that although Rice will report to Clinton, she will also be a member of the Cabinet. Hmmmm. How’s that going to work?

The most reassuring figure of all, as a reminder that the adults will be in charge here, was Defense Secretary Bob Gates, whom Obama persuaded to stay on. Gates didn’t have much to say in public this morning, other than that he was prepared to “do my duty” and serve the new president. But if there’s one person Obama can count on to tell him the truth -- one person who, as the British like to say, has no “side” -- it’s Gates. Perhaps more than anyone in government, he has challenged conventional wisdom: cautioning against military confrontation with Iran, questioning whether more troops are really the answer in Afghanistan, and so on.

The one addition I would love to have seen to this tableau was a back-channel strategist/diplomat, in the tradition of Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. The new administration is going to have so many opportunities and challenges, early on, that it will need some quiet diplomacy to sort out its options -- some secret trips to Damascus, or Kabul, or even Tehran. I don’t yet see in this team the ideal Machiavellian practitioner of secret statecraft.

I’ve watched other “dream team” cabinets fall into disarray because of the conflict between strong personalities, and this problem has been most acute when there’s a weak national security adviser. That happened during the Reagan administration, when George Shultz was at State, Casper Weinberger was at Defense and a dazed Robert McFarlane was trying to keep order through the NSC. It was a mess.

I remember, too, the enthusiasm that initially greeted President George W. Bush’s all-star team -- the veterans Colin Powell at State, Don Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and, as a special bonus, Dick Cheney as vice president. They were certified foreign-policy superstars and, what’s more, they had all worked together before. To say that they made a mess does not do justice to its toxicity. The problems were compounded by Condoleezza Rice’s weakness as national security adviser, and by her inability to help the president maintain order in this, forgive the term, “team of rivals.”

Can Jim Jones be the strong national security adviser who makes sure that his all-star team plays well together and shares the ball? Can this group avoid fighting out their policy battles through newspaper leaks (as unpleasant as that dearth of poisoned leaks might be for people like me)? That will be the test of Obama’s foreign-policy team.

They’re all starting on the same sheet of music -- talking in almost identical terms about how the United States must combine its military power with a renewed commitment to diplomacy, so that it can rebuild alliances and rebalance a world that has become much too angry at America.

But we shall have to see whether this chorus of loud voices will stay in tune, and whether the conductor, Maestro Obama, can remain as much in charge of the concert as he was today.

By David Ignatius  | December 1, 2008; 3:34 PM ET
Categories:  Ignatius  | Tags:  David Ignatius  
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Clearly it's a group with strong egos. However, I imagine even this group understands the incredible challenges facing us as a nation. Frankly, not succeeding together is not an option. And they are bright enough to understand that.

Posted by: amaikovich | December 1, 2008 5:39 PM | Report abuse

I, too, wondered how President Obama will manage this high-powered panel of foreign affairs advisors. But I am willing to give the new decider-in-chief the benefit of the doubt.

I am not, however, troubled by the absence of a Kissinger-style behind the scenes maneuverer.

Certainly some negotiations will need to take place in confidence but we need more transparency in our government, not less, even in foreign relations.

Keep up the good work.

Posted by: citykid | December 1, 2008 5:58 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for this balanced and well thought article.

We all want hope for once to have a chance - how the world yearns for that.

You ask "Rice will report to Clinton, she will also be a member of the Cabinet. Hmmmm. How’s that going to work?"

Simple - Ms Rice may report to the very capable Mrs. Clinton but her loyalty first and foremost is to the President. And the President who has Ms Rice at his Cabinet table knows that.

As well, there is a another check in this set - the World knows, in detail, what Mrs Clinton has said and espoused - as well as what the President has said and espoused. So in discussions with other nations - so the world will interpret and assess.

May I suggest that with this combination dont confuse it further by bringing a further 'Kissinger' type person. That would be a disaster.

Use the Vice President to build friendship and strength amongst America's friends - we in Oz land will warmly welcome him if he were to honour us with a visit. And so would many other of America's frieds.

We can only hope that one day the President will do likewise and not just because of some 'crisis' underway or in the making. But we do know that at this time the restoration of America as a superpower economy with an equally superpower welfare and health system is his number one priority.

We can wait for his visit. Thanks.

Posted by: wandererfromoz | December 1, 2008 6:01 PM | Report abuse

I think Hussein doesn't know what the heck he's doing.

He should have run on the republican ticket. He's looking more and more like his favorite "independent" senator, Lieberman.

Posted by: cintronlourdes | December 1, 2008 6:02 PM | Report abuse

I really have never understood your antipathy towards Hillary Clinton. Your opposition remained online for days. So I have to call into question your judgement versus that of the President-elect. Dishing out opinions to rote is easy. Actually getting something done is hard. Mrs Clinton will have to do the heavy work. You and Andrea Mitchell will enjoy the luxury of being snarky. Both of you have never had to deliver anything. It says something about Pres-elect Obama that he is the Decider.

Posted by: bitterpill81 | December 1, 2008 6:04 PM | Report abuse

Relying on a talented team is a fine experience. You will always get different perspectives on complex problems, which will not disturb you if you believe that learning is a continuous endeavor. I think the choices made so far are promising. I am particularly happy with the selection of Senator Clinton to head the State Department. She will certainly form a fine group of assistants, which will greatly benefit from the accumulated knowledge of that organization. G.P. Carvalho

Posted by: carvalhomp | December 1, 2008 6:18 PM | Report abuse

With all due respect to Hillary Clinton and the domestic popularity she has commanded in the Dem party, but can someone explain to me why having her as Secretary of State is some kind of "all-star" pick?

Apart from losing to Obama and having been the 1st Lady in previous years, why does she deserve a starting spot on this "Dream Team" in terms of qualifications and experience?

Posted by: p1funk | December 1, 2008 7:08 PM | Report abuse

"...and he sounded convincing when he said, 'the buck stops here' ".

was the most brilliant line in this doddering, dragging dofus offering.

The Washington Post columnists are a collection of the worst.

Posted by: whistling | December 1, 2008 7:32 PM | Report abuse

The whole idea of Obama's cabinet makeup is that there will be both a left and a right view presented to him allowing him to be the ultimate arbiter as to the best course to take. I'll take that over the incompetent President and his merry band of yes men that we have in office now and gladly.

Posted by: nysteveo2 | December 1, 2008 7:35 PM | Report abuse

Obama's approach to organizing the economic team of his administration is reminiscent of how the Manhattan Project was organized under FDR in WWII. Back then, the goal was to develop a way to enrich U235 from uranium ore as quickly as possible in order to make an atomic bomb before the Nazis. Three teams pursued three different methods of enrichment in parallel, in friendly competition, with all the resources and top-notch personnel the U.S. at war could provide.

Obama's three approaches to finding a solution to our economic disaster are: through Geithner and Treasury, Sommers and Council of Economic Advisors; Volcker and a brain trust outside government.

In the past, our nation has been able to solve all sorts of problems because we operate as an idea marketplace, in which the best of competing ideas can emerge and dominate. It is far more effective than top-down monolithic attempts to solve problems, because the top-down approach is highly vulnerable to as little as a single crucial mistake. Our progress in the various sciences can be attributed in large part to the decentralization of funding sources to support research, by having NIH, NSF, USDA, DOE, etc running separate grant programs that use peer reviews for quality control.

In time, we shall see if Obama is using the Manhattan Project model to develop solutions to our current very urgent and very big problems, and if he and his teams are successful at it.

Posted by: philfilner | December 1, 2008 8:06 PM | Report abuse

A good way to tell when a Washington pundit has reached the limits of his knowledge and judgement is when he starts offering thoughts on how some politician's body language made him feel.

In this case, the thoughts on President-elect Obama's body language are intended to convey the authors wish to feel reassured about a situation he cannot evaluate on the merits (because Obama and his new team haven't done anything yet) and can't really criticize (for the same reason). That is fine, but one observes that foreign and national security policy depends more on an orderly decision making process than on a critical mass of brilliant, experienced or (in Sen. Clinton's case) merely famous people. I'd like to believe some such process will emerge in the next administration, but if it does a virtual certainty is that some of the "Obama All-Stars" now being feted by the celebrity-oriented media will leave long before the end of Obama's term, feeling they have been shut out of important decisions. Other things being equal, it would be undesirable for the Secretary of State to be among these, but Clinton's ability to handle her position without disrupting Obama's administration is most in question among any of the appointees Obama has announced to this point.

Posted by: jbritt3 | December 1, 2008 10:56 PM | Report abuse

If you couldn't find a "back channel" diplomat on this team, you haven't been looking very hard. He is there, tentatively slated as Secretary of Commerce. There is no better back channel diplomat around than Bill Richardson.

He was doing delicate diplomatic "stuff" as a congressman, UN Ambassador, and the mere Governor of New Mexico. When the North Koreans wanted to talk to someone in government in the United States, they headed to Santa Fe, not Washington. I can see no reason why he couldn't continue in that role. Surely his duties at Commerce would give him enough time for some more trips to North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Sudan, etc.

Posted by: svand | December 1, 2008 11:48 PM | Report abuse





Posted by: coldcomfort | December 2, 2008 12:48 AM | Report abuse

if obama wanted an all-star cast he should have consulted with george steinbrenner,he would have told him the results are not too satisfying nor gartifying.

Posted by: ronaldtennillegeorgia1 | December 2, 2008 6:05 AM | Report abuse

Just thinking about who the Machiavellian back-channel operator in this picture might be? What highly skilled political operator with links to the new SecState and contacts with influential people in almost every country just found himself with a lot less to do thanks to Obama's vetting process? Someone who gave in to vetting requests with hardly a squeal of objection? Someone who mightn't object to getting back to the centre of things, wielding influence, moving and shaking like the good old days?

Hmmm... I wonder if anyone fits the Bill?

Posted by: andrewharbison | December 2, 2008 6:38 AM | Report abuse

Well, well the egos in the Press are wondering about the egos in an Obama administration. After all, if only every President followed David's nostrums all would be well. Once again we are going to see a clash of egos: but, it will be between the Obama Team and the Village Gasbags, often seen on the Chris Matthews Show. Have you noticed how they know it all?

Posted by: bitterpill81 | December 2, 2008 6:56 AM | Report abuse

I voted for change, not continuity. This doesn't represent any change in which I can believe. This is more of same and same hasn't worked too well for the past 8 years.

Posted by: candorman | December 2, 2008 7:49 AM | Report abuse

Oh Good God,when in the Hell will WAPO stop
its endless fawning over its New Little Tin
God,the New Messiah Barack Hussein Obama,
and stop reading us never ending phony idiotic "The Office of the President Elect"
Press Releases and start doing your job as
a watchdog over our Federal Government again.

As, it is said that "Until we learn from the lesson that history is trying to teach us,then we are doomed to repeat it over and
over again,until we do so" and if one will
only think back to when Lame Duck George W Bush and the Mad Draft Dodger Tricky Dicky
Cheney first came into power that we had the stupid,lazy,same in the tank newsmedia
out fawning over Bush and Cheney,and we all
know here over seven and one half years later how that turned out don't we now?
So wise up WAPO and your fawning over Obama
pathetic excuses for reporters and writers
and Stop Fawning Over Messiah Barack Hussein Obama here and now,not another eight year later if Obama hasn't thrown you
under the bus as well or sent you off to one of his new "internment camps"for these
dangerous enemies of his Dictatorship.

Posted by: Marilyn80 | December 2, 2008 8:29 AM | Report abuse

We should start a list of all the republotards currently writing the "'ll never work..." pieces. The President Elect has not even taken office yet and here they are, telling us that 'this isn't change', 'Clinton retreads', etc.

We can easily predict that these morons will be sniping from the outset...crying at the dethroning of their heroes; chimpie and shooter, gonzo and rummy, rove and wolfie. What a bunch of dumb@$$es!

Posted by: Heerman532 | December 2, 2008 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Barak Obama is covering his you know what, for the most part. He knows where he is weak and he needs to cover his bases.

I think Hillary Clinton should have passed on this one, though, not, that, she is not able to handle the job, but, she, is too much of a media and press scapegoat...she will be decimated by her enemies in the media and press....and Barak Obama is being quite the slick dude in putting her out front of him....she will take the first bullets from the media and press, maybe, she will even take them all...leaving Barak Obama without a scratch.....from the media and press once about some smooth move....Obama's got'em.

Posted by: rannrann | December 2, 2008 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Perhaps Obama's greatest strength with regard to this Cabinet is that he is not beholden to any established idological or political faction. Unlike our current President, who was in many ways "manufactured" by various factions of the Republican party, no specific group within the Obama camp is likely to feel entitled to push a specific ideological agenda or doctrinaire approach.

In my mind, this does two things for Obama: First, inidvidual members of his Cabinet have "cover" if they are not able to implement policies that some of that Cabinet member's more strident supporters favor. And Obama doesn't have to deal with opposing factions - who with a different, more beholden President, would feel entitled by his election - fighting behind the scenes for ideological supremecy.

Posted by: sbrooks3 | December 2, 2008 12:20 PM | Report abuse

Those of you worried about seeing "continuity" instead of "change" are way off-base.

The "change you can believe in" is called....COMPETENCE.

The single glaring and overriding theme surrounding Obama's picks is "competence".

Something we haven't seen in 8 years.

Posted by: RightDownTheMiddle | December 2, 2008 1:10 PM | Report abuse

It has not stopped. Reporters are still getting their tingling up their legs, now with Obama’s appointment of a "dream team". Notwithstanding Obama's immediate break of a campaign promise of "change", the media is all excited because he is appointing re-threads. These re-threads are more likely to endorse policies that are closer to Bush's policies than to any recognizable "change". The only drawback is that these policies are going to err on the wrong side of Bush's policies. Summers, as well as Volcker, are bound to go for higher taxes when their deficit spending goes too wild. That will make things worst. Napolitano is bound to punish private industry more on immigration than finding and saving us from terrorist. She is no expert on terrorism. Holder is a politician liable to protect his friends. Gaithner is an untested bureaucrat, but his participation in the badly-damaging AIG bailout points to a worrisome capacity. Clinton will look after Clinton, and maybe America if it coincides. So, is this a "dream team"? Please, do not be childish.

Posted by: dsevilla1 | December 2, 2008 1:16 PM | Report abuse

Foolish David!!

Posted by: jjcrocket | December 2, 2008 1:28 PM | Report abuse

"...what was striking was how much Obama himself dominated the session."

And this was a striking...why? It's amazing that someone who doesn't engage in the political equivalent of nut-grabbing is somehow unable to command attention, a room or people.

Posted by: ednt4606 | December 2, 2008 5:26 PM | Report abuse


US Supreme Court To Issue Injunction Against Electoral College Vote Until Barack Proves His Natural-Born Citizenship.

Posted by: Archarito | December 2, 2008 7:20 PM | Report abuse

RE: "I think Hussein doesn't know what the heck he's doing.

He should have run on the republican ticket. He's looking more and more like his favorite "independent" senator, Lieberman."
Obama knows exactly what he's doing - which is a hell of a lot more than can be said for the outgoing Decider in Chief.

Anyway, I would think conservatives would be happy that he isn't the liberal boogy man that he has been painted to be.

Oh, I forgot: You desperately need something with which to demonize him, and that reason has just evaporated.

Posted by: EnemyOfTheState | December 2, 2008 7:23 PM | Report abuse

RE: "Prediction:

US Supreme Court To Issue Injunction Against Electoral College Vote Until Barack Proves His Natural-Born Citizenship."
Prediction: This pathetic attempt at delegitimizing the election by fringe nutjobs will fade from national consciousness, much like the conservative movement.

Posted by: EnemyOfTheState | December 2, 2008 7:38 PM | Report abuse

Not so fast, David! Why not wait for the score before we call President elect team an all-star team.

I wish them all (ind. as well as a team)lots of luck but more importantly foresight. The Semitic peoples in the Middle East are anxiously waiting for an answer to their prayers.

Posted by: wrock76taolcom | December 2, 2008 9:29 PM | Report abuse

Henry, No. Zbig, maybe. Otherwise, the column was a hoot. Great stuff. Also, I'd have given Ms. Rice the kind of latitude you did in your recent column about her. She was up against some pretty formidable, reason-free, hormonal imbalances with the current WH team. It's tough to apply logic in that kind of environment. As for Hill&Bill - that will indeed be a challenge. But Hill is not (as the NYT stated) the "brilliant" one; and her husband is too self-indulgent to manage his now-sputtering brilliance. So my money is on the fellow who was elected, by a majority of those at Harvard Law, to run the Review - and noteworthy is that you know everyone of those voters felt that he/she was qualified for the the job. But they opted for a cut above.

Posted by: BrianTRaven | December 2, 2008 9:55 PM | Report abuse

All Star Roster, all star egos, what a disaster

Posted by: kathymac1 | December 2, 2008 10:06 PM | Report abuse

This article has many good points--the least of which deals with Jones and the swirling egos. Obama made it very clear that he -then Biden- were in charge---no if ands or buts!...You could see it dawn on hillery during the pressor--she went from all smiles to pensive and reflective!

Putting Samantha Power and Susan Rice in the mix will diffuse the clinton drama...hillery does not play well with strong women! These women have a LONG relationship of trust with Obama--that hillery will never get.

To bclinton in the Senate, please, he needs to go home and let the new talent in the Dem party take the reins! Too much clinton---too little change!

Posted by: jetlone | December 3, 2008 7:59 AM | Report abuse

Clinton is a smart move. She is very high profile and Obama has set the bar very high for himself is his "remake of foreign policy has yet to unfold" if he has any major failures - blame Clinton and send her packing. She will be out of the Senate and no longer a Presidential contender for the party if she is blamed publically for a foreign policy disaster.

Posted by: star_key2 | December 3, 2008 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Oh God not more Obama "Twitter" and Insane
Fawning over WAPO's Hero Messiah Barack
The Wealth Spreader Hussein Obama and his
Band of Democrat Incompetents and Losers.

Posted by: sherrykay2008 | December 3, 2008 5:41 PM | Report abuse

An all star team does not necessarily translate into success. George Bush named all stars to his cabinet and failed. How will Obama create the chemistry of a successful team? ..............

Posted by: glclark4750 | December 4, 2008 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Jim Jones would seem to be the go-to guy for assembling a "new" roadmap... but will be stymied by the AIPAC forces that have coalaced around Rodham Clinton and Joe the Biden. As far as Iran goes... he would be best advised by Gary Sick as a balance to the "obliterate" Iran forces.

Posted by: angriestdogintheworld | December 5, 2008 2:09 PM | Report abuse

I agree with candorman, who writes: " I voted for change, not continuity. This doesn't represent any change in which I can believe. This is more of same and same hasn't worked too well for the past 8 years."

BO stinks. Change?!? His whole lineup is retreads.

Posted by: regentrifydc | December 6, 2008 12:06 PM | Report abuse

This is how we know we have a strong Leader....Weak leaders put Yes men around them, True Leaders put competence first and foremost, and like you said ALL OF US KNOW WHO THE LEADER IS.....WHEN YOU CAN TOPPLE THE CLINTON DYNASTY.....YOU DESERVE THAT RESPECT....and anyone who does cross the President will be gone quicker than they would know what happened!!

We,the ppl who elected Obama are his Lobbyists.....things are changing....we are a nation of Americans remembering how to stand together in Unity, in THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!!


Posted by: Hheeaatt | December 6, 2008 11:38 PM | Report abuse

Breaking Video from the Lipman Times:

Hillary is back on SNL...and Bill is with her. From last night:

The LT: Comprehensive coverage of the Obama Administration.

All Obama. All of the Time.

Posted by: robthewsoncamb | December 7, 2008 2:26 PM | Report abuse


What is up with all of the Clinton hate- first of all to call her merely famous when she is reporting to the ultimate empty suit- yes- there are no policy accomplishments for the man in charge yet- is hypocritical. Secondly, she has been the ultimate team player to this point- she ran a campaign where she had an equal amount of votes but lost on political manuevering- which is fine, since everyone knew the rules- but then she went on to help with the campaign, making over 60 appearances. Do you remember how many ex-DNC chair Dean meant- 0! He didn't even endorse Kerry until after the about Bradley- he's a nice guy- also did not help out Gore. Saint Edward (Kennedy- the saint of self serving pols) not only didn't help Carter- he actually wrecked any chances.

So why all the hatred for her- what is different about her? Her policies were more defined and more ambitiously progressive than Obama's- as he has backed out or moderated almost every position the left thought it had in him or simply adopted her plans (see mortgage crisis, NAFTA, and to some degree healthcare). So it wasn't that. All of the people in the cabinet voted to give W the authority to make war- so it isn't that...hmmm what is different- oh, yeah, she has 2 X chromosomes and is powerful and able- perhaps that is it.

I worked to get Barak elected but struggled with the large group of self-righteous supporters of his that assumed that they were always "in the right" and questioned everyone else's motives. I have been a progressive activist for 24 years and have the scars from many losing primary campaigns to prove it (Jackson '88, B. Kerry '92, W. Clark '04) as well as many local races and local/national issues. HRC was my initial choice because she had the best policy agenda with the ability to drive it through- we will see what Barak does- as I said, I volunteered for him in multiple states and did as much as I could for him in the generals.

The persistant hatred for HRC turns off may of the people we will need to drive any agenda through.


Posted by: nycLeon | December 8, 2008 3:05 PM | Report abuse

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