Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ambitious agenda awaits new cabinet: Globe and Mail

The cabinet is almost complete - a diverse collection of big brains and bigger egos that Barack Obama must now harness in pursuit of the most ambitious agenda defined by an incoming president in modern times.

Yesterday, Mr. Obama announced Tom Vilsack as his pick for agriculture secretary. Mr. Vilsack was governor of Iowa before quitting to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, which didn't go well at all. He dropped out early in 2007 and threw his support behind Hillary Clinton. Mr. Obama bears few grudges.

Ken Salazar, Democratic senator from Colorado, is Mr. Obama's nominee as secretary of the interior, which manages federal land and the federal government's relations with native Americans.

Mr. Salazar's first big decision, once he is confirmed by the Senate, will be to craft a policy on offshore oil exploration. Congress allowed a moratorium on drilling to expire in September, but many environmentalists and many Democrats want it reimposed.

Mr. Salazar is the second Hispanic appointed to the cabinet, joining incoming commerce secretary Bill Richardson, another former rival for the nomination.

Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, said Mr. Obama's environment team "will be weakened by the addition of Ken Salazar, who has fought against federal action on global warming, against higher fuel efficiency standards, and for increased oil drilling and oil subsidies."

Other environmental groups, however, were more positive. The Sierra Club's executive director, Carl Pope, said in a statement yesterday that "as a Westerner and a rancher, [Mr. Salazar] understands the value of our public lands, parks, and wildlife and has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration's reckless efforts to sell off our public lands to Big Oil and other special interests."

Ambitious agenda awaits new cabinet: Globe and Mail

Mr. Obama's is a diverse cabinet, though not as diverse as some would like. With three of 20 positions still to be filled, there will be four women, so far, sitting around the table, with Hillary Clinton - Mr. Obama's former archrival - the most senior as secretary of state. George W. Bush started out with four women in cabinet, and Bill Clinton had five.

Eric Holder, the nominee for attorney-general, is black, as is Susan Rice, who will be United Nations ambassador, a cabinet-rank position, and Lisa Jackson, Mr. Obama's nominee to head up the Environmental Protection Agency. There are two Asian Americans - energy secretary Steven Chu and veterans secretary Eric Shinseki - while chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is Jewish.

All in all, it is a cabinet no more diverse than Mr. Bush's or Mr. Clinton's first cabinet, in both of which 47 per cent were women and/or a visible minority. It is, however, thus far a cabinet devoid of representation from the Old South, though press secretary Robert Gibbs hails from Alabama.

More significant is the praise the cabinet picks have earned from mainstream interests and observers. Whether it is Timothy Geithner at Treasury, Ms. Clinton at State, Mr. Holder at Justice or Robert Gates, currently Mr. Bush's Defence Secretary and soon to be Mr. Obama's, the general consensus is that Mr. Obama has chosen a powerfully competent group of secretaries and advisers to implement his agenda.

And what, exactly, is that agenda? In an interview with Time magazine, which has named the president-elect Man of the Year, Mr. Obama spelled out exactly what voters should expect of his administration by the time of the 2010 midterm elections.

Seldom, if ever, has an incoming president set the bar so high, which is why his response deserves to be quoted at length.

On domestic policy: "Have we helped this economy recover from what is the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression? Have we instituted financial regulations and rules of the road that assure this kind of crisis doesn't occur again? Have we created jobs that pay well and allow families to support themselves? Have we made significant progress on reducing the cost of health care and expanding coverage? Have we begun what will probably be a decade-long project to shift America to a new energy economy? Have we begun what may be an even longer project of revitalizing our public-school systems so we can compete in the 21st century?"

On foreign policy: "Have we closed down Guantánamo in a responsible way, put a clear end to torture and restored a balance between the demands of our security and our Constitution? Have we rebuilt alliances around the world effectively? Have I drawn down U.S. troops out of Iraq, and have we strengthened our approach in Afghanistan - not just militarily but also diplomatically and in terms of development? And have we been able to reinvigorate international institutions to deal with transnational threats, like climate change, that we can't solve on our own?"

And beyond that: "I want the American people to be able to say, 'Government's not perfect; there are some things Obama does that get on my nerves. But you know what? I feel like the government's working for me. I feel like it's accountable. I feel like it's transparent. I feel that I am well informed about what government actions are being taken. I feel that this is a president and an administration that admits when it makes mistakes and adapts itself to new information, that believes in making decisions based on facts and on science as opposed to what is politically expedient.' Those are some of the intangibles that I hope people two years from now can claim."

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