Obama’s team of stars: Can he manage it?
Some inner-circle conflict can be of help to a president, but building a sense of teamwork will be key.
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As a young and relatively inexperienced chief executive, Mr. Obama has assembled a group of advisers known more for their sterling credentials than for their loyalty to him. That alone speaks to a certain confidence on Obama’s part, a self-possession that was on regular display during the long presidential campaign. The selection of this team also shows a willingness to take risks, particularly his choice for secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, his bitter rival for the Democratic nomination. And it speaks to the grave nature of the times, with the US fighting two wars and mired in what economists predict will be a long, deep recession.
In less than two months, the hard business of governing begins. The question then becomes: Can Obama manage this team of A-listers, many of whom have outsized personalities and tend to see themselves as leaders in their own right rather than followers? Inevitably, clashes will arise; differences of opinion will leak to the press. But “No Drama Obama,” as he came to be known during the campaign, may find value in a certain amount of conflict.
“You don’t want a team of timidity,” says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. “Second, with big egos you’ll have friction, but friction creates light as well as heat. That is, there’s the potential for lively and informative deliberations. But everything hinges on the president’s ability to contain the internal conflict and get everybody to agree to the final decisions that he makes.”
Ultimately, no one knows how Obama will do at the top of the Washington power pyramid. At his press conference Monday in Chicago to introduce his national-security team, Obama offered an assurance that everyone he has assembled shares a “core vision” of what is needed both at home and abroad, but that he also welcomes honest discourse.
“One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in groupthink and everybody agrees with everything and there’s no discussion and there are no dissenting views,” Obama said. “So I’m going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House.”
He finished his response with an assertion of authority: “Understand, I will be setting policy as president. So, as Harry Truman said, the buck will stop with me.”
During the campaign, Obama’s cool temperament set the tone for the team he had assembled beneath him. Unlike the campaigns he competed most fiercely against – Senator Clinton’s in the primary and Sen. John McCain’s in the general election – Obama never endured any staff shake-ups or embarrassing leaks about internal dissension. In an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” right after Obama won the election, his top advisers confirmed the smooth-as-silk impression the campaign created from the start.