November 9, 2012 6:27 pm
At the start of Barack Obama’s first term in 2009 there was much talk of setting up a “team of rivals” – after Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book on Abraham Lincoln’s administration. Ms Goodwin remains Mr Obama’s favourite historian. But the new president never really took her advice to heart. Apart from keeping on Bob Gates at the Pentagon and making Hillary Clinton secretary of state, Mr Obama’s White House was dominated by a closed circle of mostly Chicago advisers. Cabinet heads were alienated. And the administration remained cramped by a campaign-tinged approach to governing. Now is Mr Obama’s chance to put that right.
Second terms often disappoint. While Ronald Reagan’s ended on a high note, he spent a year mired in the Iran-Contra scandal. Bill Clinton’s was derailed by the Monica Lewinsky affair. And George W. Bush’s mishandling of Social Security privatisation and Hurricane Katrina turned him into a premature lame duck. The longer a presidency continues, the higher the risk of fatigue, rapid turnover and vulnerability to accidents. Mr Obama should inure himself to these inevitable strains by getting his team right.
First, he should expand his inner circle. Even at the best of times the White House is a bubble not easily penetrated by the realities of the world outside. All the more reason to ensure that the president’s key lieutenants are drawn from beyond the most trusted circle of friends. In the first term, Valerie Jarrett, a longstanding Chicago friend of the Obama family, emerged as the most indispensable consigliere in the White House. Her unmatched access caused tensions with the rest of the administration. Without belittling Ms Jarrett’s special relationship, the president needs to draw on a broader pool.
Second, Mr Obama should appoint big figures to fill the top cabinet jobs. The impending departures of Tim Geithner from Treasury and Mrs Clinton from State offer him a chance to do so. There are plenty of talented Republicans and pro-business independents with a yen for public service. To be sure, they may turn Mr Obama down. But he needs to think boldly about drawing on the best talent.
Mr Obama won re-election in part because of the rightward tilt of the Republican party. He will succeed only if he can persuade a sufficient number of pragmatic Republicans on Capitol Hill to work with him. The earliest test will be on the budget, where a deal involving entitlement cuts and some tax rises begs to be done. Having set up the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson panel on long-term budget reform, he should endorse it rapidly. Now is the chance to reach across the aisle and recalibrate his approach to governing. Let us hope he takes it.
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