The news reports that President-elect Obama will ask Defense Secretary Robert Gates to remain at the Pentagon are heartening. For one thing, it would be a reward for excellence. Bob Gates is a model public servant who has performed extremely well, in enormously trying circumstances. It would also be an example of authentic bipartisanship and a demonstration of continuity for the man who promised “change” at every stop along the campaign trail. The Gates appointment, along with retired Marine General James Jones as national security adviser, also has the added benefit of being, in the words of a friend of mine, “a line-up that makes the Kossacks’ [readers of the Daily Kos] teeth gnash, and that is a very good thing.”
Secretary Gates is close personally, and in his worldview, to General David Petraeus, the head of Central Command and who now oversees (among other theaters) Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gates and Petraeus worked very well together in turning around the Iraq war; it is reasonable to hope that they can make progress as well in other areas.
The choice of Gates, combined with many of Obama’s new economic team (Geithner, Summers, Orszag, Christina Romer and Paul Volcker, said to be the chair of the Economic Recovery Advisory Board, which will provide Obama with outside advice) are encouraging. It may not be an ideal line-up from a conservative perspective but, if you had said a month ago that this would be the composition of the new Obama Administration, most conservatives would have taken it in a heartbeat.
Many of the people who voted for Barack Obama were doing so as an act of faith; they were not voting for his past record (which was quite liberal) or his past achievements (which were, by the usual standards for selecting a President, fairly minimal). Friends of mine who are lifelong Republicans voted for Obama because they were impressed with the quality of his mind, his manner and approach, and the discipline of his campaign. They believed that if he were elected President, he would act in a prudent, responsible, non-radical way. But they readily admitted they weren’t sure what we would get; Obama, more than any other presidential candidate in recent memory, was an unknown quantity and something of a mystery in terms of how he would govern. I found myself going back and forth on Obama, sometimes in the course of a single day.
It’s far too early to make any kind of firm judgment on President-elect Obama; he has not even taken the oath of office. People who are viewed as strong picks at the outset of an administration can, in retrospect, look bad. Managing a team is harder than selecting one. And the acid test for Obama, as for all public officials, will be the policies he pursues and the actions he takes while in office. For example, my suspicion is that Obama will, in the areas of the courts, culture of life, and health care, take actions that conservatives will view as quite problematic. And I would prefer a stimulus package which reduces tax rates on individuals and businesses, which is the best way to increase productivity and wealth.
But for now, those who did not vote for Mr. Obama have reasons to be somewhat hopeful about the direction in which he appears to be heading. His actions to date are not those of an ideologue. If this trajectory continues – and it cannot be said often enough that we are only at the dawn of the Obama era – America’s new President may pleasantly surprise conservatives and agitate the Left. He just might turn out to be more like John Kennedy than George McGovern. It remains an open question; but right now, that possibility is reason enough to be grateful.