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.

Charles Dharapak/AP
Powerhouse appointees: President-elect Obama’s team includes people with strong, and possibly conflicting, views – posing a potential management challenge.

President-elect Barack Obama has earned accolades from Democrats and Republicans alike for the high-powered national security and economic teams he has unveiled.

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.

“His motto is ‘No drama,’ ” said David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t express opinions strongly, but that we’re all a unit. And once we make a decision, we stick with it. We don’t revisit it. He stays very calm, doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low, treats people well. So when the leader is setting that example, everyone follows.”

Running White House is hard

Of course, a well-run campaign does not necessarily presage smooth sailing as president. Cabinet secretaries have power centers of their own, and the vast circles of advisers who will report ultimately to Obama do not compare with the small circle of people who ran his campaign and whose sole task – to win the election – was much simpler than running the most powerful country in the world.

On the economic front, in particular, Obama’s setup almost invites conflict. He has put at Treasury the respected Timothy Geithner, head of the New York Federal Reserve, a man exactly Obama’s age who has never held such a high-level job before. Then in the White House, Obama has named Mr. Geithner’s former boss, the famously abrasive former Treasury secretary, Larry Summers, as his top in-house economic adviser. On top of that, Obama has created a new advisory body to help with “economic recovery,” headed by former Federal Reserve chair Paul Volcker, himself no shrinking violet.

Can security stars play as a team?

On the national security front, the early years of the Bush administration were famous for the conflicts between the abrasive Defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, on one side and Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice on the other.

Obama’s team – Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is staying on from the Bush administration, and Gen. James Jones, a friend of Senator McCain’s – are all highly regarded as individuals, but their dynamic as a group remains uncharted.

The manner in which Obama introduced his top national security advisers – together, literally as a team – was unusual, and may have been meant as a deliberate signal that teamwork is the name of the game.

“It suggests that he wants comity between the White House staff and the secretaries,” says Paul Light, a public policy professor and expert on presidential transitions at New York University. “To a certain extent, it focuses on the issue, rather than the person. Rather than just announce Hillary Clinton, he announces the whole group. And it tends to focus us on national security policy, rather than on whether Hillary Clinton will be a good secretary of State or not. And that’s a good thing for him.”

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