Obama Cabinet Bingo
The next few weeks will bring huge changes to the Obama administration as the president plots appointments for new secretaries of State, the Treasury, Defense and many others. Host Guy Raz talks with Jim Fallows of The Atlantic about a second-term cabinet.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
SENATOR KELLY AYOTTE: I want to say that I'm more troubled today knowing, having met with the acting director of the CIA...
SENATOR SUSAN COLLINS: That the U.N. ambassador decided to play what was essentially a political role...
SENATOR BOB CORKER: I would just ask that the president step back away from all the buzz around this particular situation.
RAZ: That's Republican Senators Bob Corker, Kelly Ayotte and Susan Collins this week talking about their concerns over the possible nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to be the next secretary of State. Let's bring in our James Fallows of The Atlantic. He joins us here most Saturdays. Jim, hi.
JAMES FALLOWS: Hello, Guy.
RAZ: These next few weeks are going to bring huge changes to the Obama administration. He's got to appoint new secretaries at State, the Treasury, the Pentagon, possibly the Justice Department, EPA, energy, commerce, not to mention the CIA and the FCC, and I'm probably forgetting a few others. So where to begin?
FALLOWS: We might begin with the, the post that's most in the news, that of who is going to be Hillary Clinton's successor at secretary of State.
RAZ: And talk, of course, is about Susan Rice, the ambassador to the U.N. or Senator John Kerry. Controversy over Susan Rice and what she said after those attacks on U.S. personnel in Benghazi, but new information has come to light about her in recent days about some investments that she and her husband own in many Canadian energy companies, including the company that wants to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Could that pose a problem for her?
FALLOWS: It could. And I think it's worth emphasizing that this financial question is on an entirely different level from the preceding criticism we've heard of Susan Rice over the last week or two. In my judgment, the objections that have been made by many Republican senators to Susan Rice over this matter have been wholly hypocritical because exactly the same objections made in stronger fashion to Condoleezza Rice eight years earlier had been dismissed by these same senators as insignificant.
So I think that President Obama really had no choice but to stick with Susan Rice in the face of that opposition. The financial questions are different. We obviously don't know the full story there. But at face value, they are strange, just because people who have operated in the Washington world as long as Susan Rice recognize the peril you expose yourself to in having these large, significant holdings while in public office.
RAZ: Mm. Jim, there's often this notion that in second terms, you know, the A team leaves and the B team comes in. You had Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates in the first term. Is that what we're facing?
FALLOWS: I think you can find cases in history where that has happened, but it's at least as often the case that there's a better match of person and job when you go from the first term to the second. For example, George W. Bush's second-term secretary of defense was Robert Gates, who was so much a better choice for that job than Donald Rumsfeld that, of course, President Obama held him over.
In Richard Nixon's first term, William Rogers was his secretary of state. And he was a fine secretary of state, but Henry Kissinger was a better match in that job for the - in the second term than he had been in his national security advisor's role. I think there's a large history of better matches for the job the second time around.
RAZ: Well, when it comes to selections, how much should a president think of show horse versus work horse?
FALLOWS: It seems there is a random, at best, connection between people who are distinguished and symbolic in their achievement and those who actually can do a very good job in the - what is often the grunt work of being a cabinet secretary. When I say grunt work, I mean showing up before congressional committees and traipsing around the world for these ceremonial lunches and doing lots of stuff that is objectively boring. Some people who were famous star performers, like, for example, Hillary Clinton, she was a show horse choice, you might say, for secretary of state by Barack Obama, but she has been a great secretary of state by almost everyone's acclaim.
You could argue that Steven Chu, the Nobelist who's been heading over the Energy Department for the past four years, he was one of the very highly acclaimed choices for President Obama four years ago. You would argue that the Energy Department, for reasons that are not Steven Chu's fault at all, has been one of the disappointments for the Obama administration because of all of the impaction of legislation on climate issues and all the rest.
So I think it is fascinating to see how presidents probably in the second term they have a clearer sense of what they're looking for in this day-by-day reality of being a cabinet secretary.
RAZ: James Fallows. He's national correspondent for The Atlantic. You can read his new cover story. It's called "Mr. China Comes to America." It's in the latest issue of The Atlantic. Jim, thanks.
FALLOWS: Thank you, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.