Why Obama Should Name His Cabinet Now

When Barack Obama announces his pick for vice president, one set of questions will be asked, in various forms, over and over: Does this candidate adequately address Obama's weaknesses? Does he or she compensate for the nominee's relatively brief time on the national scene? Does the VP pick make some potential attacks on Obama harder?

It's a lot to ask of some senator or governor -- maybe too much. But the day of the running-mate announcement could be truly revolutionary, if Obama has the courage to offer to the public more than just a running mate.

Given the possible vice-presidential candidates who have been floated in the press (and there's always the possibility of a choice from left field), there may be no perfect choice. There are some candidates who bring gravitas and Washington experience (Joe Biden or Chris Dodd), some who reinforce Obama's message of change (Kathleen Sebelius or Tim Kaine), and others who offer a comforting blandness (Evan Bayh). But no single candidate has everything everyone -- Obama supporters and reporters observing the race both – either hopes for or expects. So no matter what, when Obama announces his pick, there will be some grumbling.

But what if there were a way for Obama to get all the benefits of whoever his VP choice is and simultaneously shore up all the areas in which that choice might fall short? What if he could show strength on both foreign and domestic policy at the same time? What if in a single press conference, Obama could provide both excitement and reassurance? What if he could satisfy his base and reach out to independents? Is there a way for him to truly offer something for everyone?

Picture this: Obama announces his VP choice like every other candidate does, with a press conference praising the running mate. But then he says, "And I have something more to announce. I believe it's important for the American people to know where I intend to take the country, and the team I'll put in place to get us there. So today, I'm also announcing that a group of extraordinary leaders has agreed to join my administration, should I be fortunate enough to win this election." The curtain opens, and out walks President Obama's Cabinet.

Or much of it, anyway -- perhaps we could leave a few of the slots to be filled later. But by naming the key Cabinet secretaries, he could present to the public a portrait not just of a ticket but of a government.

There is some limited precedent for this. In May of 2000, aides to George W. Bush leaked to the media that Colin Powell was Bush's choice for secretary of state -- and that Powell had indicated he would accept the position. An endorsement by the respected former Joint Chiefs head was all well and good. But encouraging people to assume that Powell would be running Bush's foreign policy communicated stability, experience, and wisdom, not qualities which Bush himself exuded. While Powell is a unique figure in American politics, the effect went beyond his personal popularity. It showed that a candidate widely regarded as perhaps not being up to the job was putting in place a solid team. He might not have been the sharpest tool in the shed, but he'd have around him a competent, seasoned, and trustworthy group.

Yes, eight years later it seems horrifying that people actually thought that about the band of charlatans and fools Bush permitted to vivisect our democracy. But, at the time, making people imagine Bush as the head of a functioning government provided just the kind of reassuring picture his campaign wanted.

And today, the mere fact of having potential Cabinet members behind him would show that Obama is serious about tackling the country's most significant challenges -- the economy (his treasury secretary), foreign and national security policy (defense and state), health-care reform (health and human services), and climate change (energy), to name a few. It also offers the opportunity to secure multiple voting constituencies at once.

Let's say Obama picks Evan Bayh, a rather conservative Democrat, to be his vice president. Obama could soothe the feelings of his party's progressive wing with a great pick for secretary of energy, someone who will be a strong advocate for a real effort to move to renewables. A great HHS pick would signal that Obama really means what he says on health reform. In other words, he could say to a potentially displeased base, "I know you're not happy about the VP. But I haven't forgotten you."

And unveiling the Cabinet would have an even greater effect if Obama's vice-presidential choice is not a longtime Washington insider. A nominee has to choose between two imperatives when choosing a running mate: compensating for his weaknesses or reinforcing his strengths. Given what we've seen of him and his campaign, there is a far greater likelihood Obama will choose the latter course. He has always understood the importance of keeping his twin messages of change and reconciliation as the central axis around which his campaign revolves. The vice-presidential pick is the biggest single decision he will make during the campaign, and it would be profoundly out of character for him to choose the "safe" option.

To paraphrase Prospect editor Mark Schmitt's immortal observation "It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you," it's not what you say about your VP pick, it's what your VP pick says about you. On last Sunday's Meet the Press, NBC's Chuck Todd mentioned the way Lloyd Bentsen, with his decades of Washington experience and patrician carriage, only made Michael Dukakis seem smaller (and not just because Bentsen was a half-foot taller). Much of what is appealing about Obama, particularly his newness and boldness, would be undermined by picking someone like Joe Biden, to take just one example.

But Washington and media insiders like Biden and would be guaranteed to praise Obama for obtaining the benefit of Biden's foreign-policy chops. By announcing that Biden would be his secretary of state the same day that he announces Kathleen Sebelius (for instance) as his vice president, Obama could still reap most of that praise, without undermining his brand.

Of course, Obama would face the practical problem of maintaining secrecy, and thus the element of surprise, if he had to go about vetting a group of potential Cabinet secretaries (and getting them to accept his offers). But even if word leaked out beforehand, McCain would be unlikely to rush to assemble his own Cabinet-in-waiting, since it would make him look like he could do nothing more than follow Obama's lead. And given that the attitude of both McCain himself and his aides toward Obama can be summed up as "Who the hell does this punk think he is?" -- and that this emotion seems to have become the primary driver of their strategy -- chances are they would decide that they don't need a Cabinet to make their candidate look presidential.

Obviously, there isn't a lot of time to assemble a large group of potential Cabinet secretaries if Obama wanted to present them before his convention. And he might not want to get tied down just yet, in which case he could send out some strong signals to reporters without making a firm commitment ("I haven't made any decisions, but I think Gov. Napolitano would make a great attorney general, don't you?"). But making a formal announcement would send a far more powerful message -- and initiate a wave of positive coverage about the future Obama administration. Would McCain harrumph about how "presumptuous" it is? Of course. But Obama's counterargument -- that because he is less known, he wants to give the public a clear picture of what his administration will look like would be much more persuasive.

Back in 2003, Tom Schaller wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post suggesting that a presidential candidate could amaze the media, double the amount of ground he or she could cover, and seize control of the campaign by choosing a running mate before the primaries had even started. Unfortunately for them, none of the candidates took him up on it. With only three months until Election Day, time is running out for Obama to do something truly surprising. Naming his Cabinet now could be just the ticket.

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