The process of naming individuals to the Obama White House started slow but has quickly accelerated, with the Obama-Biden Transition team making several major announcements over the last week.
The most significant of the announcements was the offer to Senator Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State. It was an unexpected move as it is no secret that lingering resentment remains between the Obama and Clinton camps over the manner in which the Democratic Primary unfolded. The choice of the junior Senator from New York is also complicated by the business and philanthropic dealings of former President Bill Clinton. Knowing the impact of his portfolio on his wife’s opportunity to be confirmed Secretary of State, Mr. Clinton has agreed to make contributions to his foundation more transparent.
The move to bring Senator Clinton into his inner circle carries some risk; the greatest of which is the high profile of the former First Lady and the degree to which she will attract media attention to herself and not the administration. In many ways she will have to learn to take a back seat and the President-elect will have to feel assured that Senator Clinton understands her role in the Cabinet and is prepared to be supportive of his agenda. Also, given the experience on the campaign trail, President Clinton will have to be “managed” to make certain that he does not insert himself into foreign policy debates in a way that might impede the Obama White House from executing its global objectives.
As Secretary of State Senator Clinton would be stepping into a hornet’s nest; with a number of crises around the world. Facing the Obama administration, and presumably Senator Clinton, is the President-elect’s commitment to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq, the hunt for al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the Middle East, turmoil in Africa and Russia, and Iran’s continued quest to develop nuclear weapons. Already al Qaeda has stirred the pot with the slur toward the President-elect that was uttered by Osama bin Laden’s top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, who called Mr. Obama a “house Negro” in a videotape released last week.
The election of the nation’s first Black President also raises hopes that the new administration will have a different posture toward Africa. Though the Bush administration did increase funding for the global AIDS fight on the continent, the nation’s relationship with sub-Saharan African states is tenuous at a time when many of those countries are imploding as internal power struggles are ravishing their people. Whether it is Sudan, Zimbabwe or Congo, southern Africa is in crisis. Even relatively stable South Africa faces turmoil with the resignation of President Thabo Mbeke and the leadership crisis in the African National Congress (ANC) that threatens the young democracy. Black Americans Africa still have an emotional connection with the continent of their ancestors and growing numbers of African immigrants in the United States means expectations will undoubtedly rise for a more mature U.S. policy toward Africa. More so given the fact that President-elect Obama, unlike most Black Americans, has a real familial connection with Africa as the son of a Kenyan whose grandmother still lives in that country.
Senator Clinton would immediately take on a very prominent role in the new administration and it remains to be seen how she and President-elect Obama would gel as a team. Also, it is not clear how Vice President Joe Biden, someone with extensive foreign policy experience due to his years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will be incorporated into the administration’s foreign policy development. The principal reason he was put on the Democratic ticket was to shore up concerns that Senator Obama lacked sufficient foreign policy credentials to be commander-in-chief so it would seem that the administration will want to keep the Vice President-elect front and center, even with Senator Clinton on board as Secretary of State.
The appointment of Clinton would help President-elect solidify the Democratic base and perhaps mollify some of the senator’s supporters, particularly women, who are still resentful over the outcome of the party’s nominating process. Considering that her name was floated as a possible vice presidential choice, and there was a push, albeit unsuccessful, by her supports to make that happen, the naming of Senator Clinton as Secretary of State might be seen as a way to settle the score. Aside from Secretary of the Treasury, the leadership of Foggy Bottom is the most prestigious appointment in a presidential Cabinet and constitutionally places the head of the State Department fourth in line to succeed the President.
President-elect Obama has also picked former South Dakota Senator Tom Daschle to lead the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Daschle was an early supporter of Senator Obama’s candidacy and was a prominent voice on behalf of the senator throughout the campaign. He also is a veteran of the battle for universal health care during the early years of the Clinton administration and that experience will be helpful as the issue will be front and center for the Obama administration. Just a week ago Obama chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel addressed business leaders and challenged them to make universal health care a priority so it appears one of Daschle’s first priorities will be to start drafting the contours of the President-elect’s health care proposal. Though she is heading for the State Department, Senator Clinton, who led the Clinton administration’s universal health care initiative as First Lady, will likely have significant input in the Obama administration’s proposal. The same can be said for Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, a long time proponent of a national health care plan who, despite facing serious health issues, is expected to play a major role in the administration’s rollout of a universal health care plan.
The Department of Health and Human Services is one of the federal agencies that plays an important role in the welfare of Black Americans. With health issues such as AIDS, infant mortality, asthma, diabetes, racial disparities in mortality rates, and obesity confronting Blacks, the federal government’s intervention is critical if there is to be a reduction of incidence in any of those diseases and conditions. How federal dollars are appropriated and then administered through HHS to tackle these issues under the Obama administration should be the focus of Black leadership. AIDS is an area where public policy has lagged behind the reality of the disease’s impact upon Black Americans. With rates of transmission exploding among heterosexuals, and Black women in particular, the Bush administration’s abstinence focused agenda has done little to stem the tide of the disease in the Black community. Long past epidemic stage in the Black community, HIV/AIDS policy should be front and center for the Obama administration. If not from a public health perspective, then simply because one the senator’s strongest constituent groups – Black Americans – are disproportionately affected. The true test will be the fight over the President-elect’s first budget and whether federal dollars will be allocated proportionate to the scale of the AIDS crisis.
As top level leadership is announced in federal agencies, what will really drive public policy is the professional staff that these Cabinet level designees bring with them. Much of the policy driven work will come from deputies, assistants and analysts who will manage the day to day agenda of these federal agencies. In some instances professional staff will be carried over from the Bush administration but at the highest levels – deputy and assistant Secretaries – will be political hires and it is those individuals who will have significant influence in each of the Cabinet level federal departments.