Obama’s Cabinet Could Use a Main Street Perspective

President-elect Barack Obama is creating a cabinet of dynamic, capable individuals. His team is devoid of “yes people.” It’s bi-partisan. It’s populated by leaders with strong opinions and a proven willingness to declare them forcefully.

President George W. Bush surrounded himself with strong personalities, too: Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld come to mind. President Bush was unable to prevent the fiefdoms these leaders created from undermining their potential. President-elect appears to have learned from his predecessor’s mistake in this regard. Consider his choice of National Security Advisor. Retired General James Jones arguably brings heft to the table equivalent to what incoming Vice President Joe Biden, incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and continuing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates bring. More significantly, President-elect Obama’s style, termperment and talent is different from those of President Bush. He’s unlikely to tolerate the dysfunction that marked the Bush Administration.

The new Cabinet is not only being populated by individuals with proven track records, but it is shaping up to be diverse, as well. There’s only one group that seems underrepresented: there doesn’t appear to be anyone with a significant business background in the mix. Those already nominated, or on the short list of those expected to be nominated, all have impressive credentials. There are Generals, Senators, Members of Congress, and Governors. Some have led huge government bureaucracies and a major university. But I’m not aware of any that has ever started a company or met a payroll.

Considering the amount of rhetoric surrounding the need to listen to Main Street during the recent campaign, this is surprising. Certainly there are business leaders or entrepreneurs who have something to contribute when it comes to shaping the nation’s future. Running a state. seving in Congress and leading troops is noble and important work. The experience and perspective gained from these activities is important and significant.

Yet it’s a limited perspective. Running a business is different. The skills and abilities are different. So are the expectations and pressures involved. The lessons learned and wisdom gained is different, too.

This is not to say that only private-sector viewpoints matter. Far from it. But those views are important and they should be part of the mix when President Obama sits down to deal with the challenges this country faces. The Wall Street-Main Street dichotomy bandied about in the campaign was somewhat superficial, but not completely. That’s why serving on corporate boards isn’t enough. Bringing into his cabinet someone who has run a business would bring an additional and important perspective to the Cabinet’s deliberations as it faces a long and deep recession.

President-elect Obama is to be commended for building a diverse team. He would do well to increase the diversity just a bit more. The challenges he faces are complex and impact every American. Even those whose lives center around neither Wall Street nor Pennsylvania Avenue. Main Street is important. It deserves a seat at the table.

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McCain’s Choice: Anger or Dignity

I’ve worked in fair number of campaigns over the years, most — but for the record, not all — losing ones. Some were cliffhangers. My first campaign, back in 1972 when I was a teenage press secretary, nearly elected the first woman to California’s State Senate, Cathy O’Neill. She lost by a percent, less than what the Peace & Freedom Party candidate polled. It wasn’t until nearly 6:00 am the morning after election day we knew for sure we’d lost.

I was also there at the dawn of the Bradley Effect. That was when Joe Trippi, later campaign manager of former Governor Howard Dean and a senior aide to former Senator John Edwards, put down the phone and told then Mayor Tom Bradley that, in spite of the pre-election day polls, he was not going to win the California Governor’s race in 1982.

These are not fond memories.

Neither were the big losses, of which there were more than a few. These are the ones in which the candidate knows in his or her heart that the race is over, but needs to find the strength to keep on campaigning through election day. It’s a test of their character, poise and commitment to something beyond themselves, but it boils down to a simple choice: do they go out flailing or with dignity? 

The former approach involves often ugly attacks at the opponent, the media, and anyone (and everyone) else who comes within reach of the candidate. The candidate and his or her inner-circle just can’t believe they’re going to lose. They assume it’s a trick. That the other side cheated. Or the Fates cheated. The inevitable loss is not their fault and they want the world to know it.

In the dignified version of acknowledging defeat, candidate becomes more introspective. He or she seems to recall why they got into the fray in the first place. Instead of winnin at all costs, they focus on why they should have won. They shift from doing whatever it takes to win, to doing what’s right to preserve their standing and reputation. It’s a campaign that moves from looking for the next headline to being able to look at oneself in the mirror. In many ways, it’s the most honest period of the campaign.

Senator Hillary Clinton veered between both approaches as her campaign against Senator Barack Obama wound down earlier this year. In the end, however, she displayed her best attributes. Losing somehow freed her to speak more from the heart, to present the ideas and positions she’d long delivered from scripts by rote in a more sincere and meaningful way.

Senator McCain is fast approaching his moment of truth. He’s a smart politician. While he sees himself as the ultimate Comeback Kid, he knows winning is a long shot. His campaign has given up on Michigan. The lift from selecting Governor Sarah Palin continues to rally the core, but is becoming a drag when it comes to independents. In the final month of the campaign he’s forced to shore up support in normally safe Republican states like Virginia and North Carolina. Leading voices in his own party are suggesting his campaign is floundering. And now some of the pundits and pollsters are claiming Senator Obama is a single state away from an Electoral College majority. While I’ve written before about why the polls in this campaign should be discounted, the sheer weight of so many polls tracking the Democratic candidate’s accelerating momentum cannot be ignored.

Senator McCain’s can still hope to strike a surprising blow during the last presidential debate at Hofstra University on Wednesday night. But he’s debated Senator Obama twice already and knows the odds of a game changing result are slim.

And that’s when we’ll see the direction in which Senator McCain moves. Last week he gave conflicting clues. He let his campaign, including his running mate, make ugly, personal charges against Senator Obama. The charges went beyond questioning his judgment — they were accusations of treason by someone who fails to see America the way Senator McCain’s supporters do. The charges looked a lot like flailing and Senator McCain seemed to encourage it. His angry side was on display.

Then there was the meeting in Minnesota in which Senator McCain stood up to his own booing followers to declare Senator Obama to be a “decent, family man” and “a person that you do not have to be scared of as president of the United States.” In demanding respect for an opponent he clearly does not like personally, Senator McCain displayed the fairness and character for which he was widely admired prior to this presidential campaign.

And that’s the choice Senator McCain will soon need to face. Shortly after Wednesday’s debate, assuming no surprises there or elsewhere, Senator McCain will sit down with his advisers and face reality: his long-held dream of being President of the United States is unlikely to be realized. Yet, for the sake of his party and for his supporters, he will need to continue to continue a grueling campaign schedule of rallies, town hall meetings and  interviews. He’ll have to decide whether he wants to spend the end game as an angry politician or a dignified statesman. He will need to decide if he wants to tear the country apart or help mend it back together.

When forced to decide, my guess is he’ll take the high road. He’ll continue to insist he’s best qualified to be president. He’ll continue to point out his opponent’s failings. Yet he’s shown he’s capable of doing both in a way that maintains the principles he’s stood for throughout most of his career. In taking this path, he’ll make his points in ways that enhances his stature when he returns to the Senate, much like Senator Clinton did.

And while this approach will disappoint his most ardent supporters, it will be the right thing to do because it puts his country. It might even add to his vote total come election day.

Governors Patrick’s and Schweitzer’s Overlooked Speeches

Brack Senator Hillary Clinton’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver tonight will rightly be long remembered and highly praised. It may have been the best speech of her career. The keynote address by former Virginia Governor Mark Warner was, while not as historic, also noteworthy and will only strengthen his standing in the Democratic party. Other blogs will no doubt dive deeply into those addresses.

Yet there were two other speeches in Denver tonight that deserved greater coverage and far more attention than they received. While the chattering heads on the all-news networks were complaining about the failure of convention to lay out the reasons why Senator Barack Obama should be elected president and why Senator John McCain shouldn’t be, they were ignoring two speeches that did just that. Two Governors — Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Brian Schweitzer of Montana — eloquently made the case.

If the pundits had spent less time droning and more time listening they’d have heard the argument for Senator Obama articulately made by Governor Patrick. They’d have heard the skewering of the McCain campaign hypocrisies from Governor Schweitzer. Most significantly, had the networks given the speeches the attention they warranted, viewers would have a much clearer understanding of the difference between the presidential candidates.

(The video of Governor Patrick’s speech can be viewed here and the text here. The video of Governor Schweitzer’s speech can be viewed here and the text here (although fair warning: no written text can capture the unique delivery of Governor Schweitzer)). 

The speeches of Governor Patrick and Governor Schweitzer delivered the message the Democratic party needs voters to hear. Too bad the networks’ talkative journalists were too busy listening to themselves to hear it.

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Vice Presidential Binds

OK, I said I was taking a break from new posts, but then I got worried: what if one of the candidates announces his selction for a running mate before I pick up regular writing for this blog again? I would lose the opportunity to comment on the how the choice they make will limit the effectiveness of their campaign strategies. And that’s something I don’t want to miss. After all, candidates and their advisors spend months and millions to devise the perfect strategy. And now it’s likely the most visible pre-election choice the candidates will make will undermine the investment. Isn’t poltics fun?

The campaign strategies of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama are pretty well in place. The Republican is the experienced maverick who talks straight and has the background to lead the nation during wartime. The proof is his military experience. It’s a point Senator McCain makes frequently. For example, when Senator Obama attacked Senator McCain for failing to support expansion of  to the GI Bill, Senator McCain countered, saying, “And I take a backseat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans. And I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did.”

It’s a good line and it highlights a fair distinction between the two candidates. One may question whether only service in the military allows a political leader to understand what’s at stake and what needs to be done during dangerous times such of these. But it’s a belief Senator McCain adheres to. He claims it as a basis for his pre-surge disagreements with the Administration on how the war in Iraq should be waged. And has explicitly questioned whether those without military service are qualified to be president. Back in November 2007 Senator McCain said, “There’s a clear division between those who have a military background and experience [with wartime issues] and people like [former Mayor Rudy] Giuliani, [former Governor] Romney and [former Senator Fred] Thompson who don’t – who chose to do other things when this nation was fighting its wars.”

And there’s the rub. When Senator McCain introduces his running mate, he will be saying, in essence, that this person has what it takes to be president. If that person lacks military experience it undermines his own core qualification. Otherwise it’s an admission that this “clear division” isn’t all that important.

That’s bad news for GOP VP front runner Governor Romney, but he’s not the only potential nominee to fail Senator McCain’s military service litmus test. So would former Governor Mike Huckabee, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman (or any of the women mentioned as possible selections), and Governors Charlie Crist of Florida, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. He can’t say they are qualified to be president, but then say Senator Obama isn’t for failing to serve in uniform.

The list of Republicans frequently mentioned as Vice Presidential nominees who pass the litmus test are few — actually, just two. Former Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge (also a former Congressman and Governor of Pennsylvania) served in Viet Nam. And South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham served in the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s Corp. That’s a truly short list. 

Senator Obama is in a similar bind. His campaign strategy hinges on “Change We Can Believe In.” Out with the old (politics) and in with the new. Yet, he also needs to reassure voters his inexperience in higher office is not a detriment. One way to do that is to select a running mate with a deep resume – especially in foreign policy where Senator Obama is arguably weakest.

That would strengthen the argument for selecting Senator Joe Biden or Christopher Dodd. Yet they have each held office for longer than many Obama supporters have been alive. Senator Hillary Clinton is symbolic of the 90’s, not the 21st Century.

On the other hand, other potential running mates have political biographies not much longer than Senator Obama’s. Neither Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano nor Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius have experience on the national scene. Former General Wesley Clark has never held elected office.

Balancing “experience” and “new politics” will be tough. No candidate is perfect, but the two frequently mentioned Democrats who come closest are Senator Evan Bayh (two terms as Governor of Indiana and now in his second term in the Senate, including tenure on the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees) and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (former U.N. Ambassador and Congressman). Governor Richardson is has more of a maverick reputation than the Senator, although the Senator’s proven ability to win in a Red state highlights his ability to be beyond old-school partisanship. (Full disclosure, I’ve previously written about my belief that Senator Bayh as a the Vice Presidential nominee best strengthens the Democratic ticket

The selection of a running mate says a lot about the presidential candidate. Any choice carries both political benefits and baggage. What’s significant is that neither Senator McCain or Senator Obama have a lot of choices that bolster their core messages.

A VP for Change

Senator Hillary Clinton and former-Senator John Edwards are both under consideration by Senator Barack Obama’s as a running mate.Senator Obama himself has said, on numerous occasions, that Senator Clinton would “be on anyone’s short list.” And the Associated Press, among others, reported that Senator Edwards is in the running. Both would be poor choices.

In fact, Senator Obama should rule out anyone who has been on a national ticket of late. Yes, that would include former Vice President Al Gore, but that’s the price to be paid when “change” is the core principal of your campaign. (OK, I’d make an exception for Vice President Gore, but c’mon, what are the odds he’d take it? That would make him the Crash Davis of politics.*)

Senator Clinton stands for many things. Some good (those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling) and some not so good (much of her campaign from March through May). She’s a return to the 90’s, not a choice for the 21st century.

Senator Edwards has been around the track too many times as well. He’s lost twice for the presidential nomination and once as the running mate to Senator John Kerry. But there’s a bigger problem with Senator Edwards: his approach to politics is incompatible with Senator Obama’s. Yes, both are genuinely committed to lifting up the nation’s poor and to helping the middle class achieve greater security. But while Senator Obama’s approach is open, inclusive, and civil, that of Senator Edward’s is harsh, exclusive and borders on demagoguery. Senator Obama talks of “disagreeing without being disagreeable.” Senator Edwards demonizes his opponents

Senator Obama needs a running matethat demonstrates to independents and moderate Republicans that he’s serious about a more civil, results oriented political culture. That means steering clear of running mates that divide the country into “us” and “them.” It means finding someone with a proven ability to rise above partisanship in order to deliver meaningful change.

I’ve already written about how well Senator Evan Bayh meets this requirement. I haven’t looked into her background deeply, but from what I have read, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano might fill the bill, too.

Senator Obama’s greatest strength is the promise of change. Looking backward on the single most important decision a presidential nominee makes undermines the premise of his campaign. Yes, conventional wisdom and the talking heads urge him to go with Senators Clinton and Edwards. But if he listened to them, he’d never have run in the first place, let alone won the nomination.

* For the trivia fans amongst you: Crash Davis was the character played by Kevin Costner in Bull Durham who became the home run king of minor league baseball in virtual anonymity.

Of Course Hilary Clinton Is Staying in the Race

Senator Hilary Clinton made it clear she’s in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination until the end … which is all of three more weeks. What a non-shocking bit of news. Of course she is. If she can raise the money (and at one point her victory speech in West Virginia tonight was beginning to sound like a telethon — I half expected Jerry Lewis to come on stage).

The fact that she won’t win the nomination is not the issue. She makes history every day she remains in the race. Every primary she enters is further in the nominating process than any woman has gone before. Add to that her pride in being a person who never quits and there’s no way she can withdraw. Unless she has to.

And the only reason she would have to is if she runs out of money. Some talking head said her campaign costs about $1 million a day. Another said the campaign owes staff, vendors and lenders about $20 million (Senator Clinton has lent the campaign roughly $10 million so far). I’m sure she can cut her expenses some, but still, that’s a lot of cash.

Fortunately, she’ll get some from her supporters. They’re ardent and the Alamo mentality is kicking in. They’ll want to fight to the end so expect a few million to show up in her coffers this week. Plus, she can lend her campaign a few more wheelbarrows of cash. Senator Barack Obama, once he’s the nominee, will help her retire her debt. And, worse comes to worse, she can write another book or husband Bill can give a few more speeches in Japan or the Middle East.

What will be interesting to watch over the next three weeks is how Senator Clinton behaves and what she says. Ideally she’ll focus her attacks on the presumptive GOP nominee, Senator John McCain. She’ll of course emphasize her own strengths, but she should refrain from giving Republicans any more ammunition than she already has.

And then there’s Michigan and Florida. Senator Clinton wants to forgive those states for breaking the Democratic National Committee’s rules. She wants their delegates seated as the vote stands. This is, of course, ridiculous. Why would the DNC forgive state parties that willfully and knowingly break the rules? What message does that give to the other states? What would happen in 2012 or 2016 if the Democratic Party says “never mind” in 2008?

Besides, holding out for all their delegates makes Senator Clinton look silly — or worse. She acquiesced to the party decision before the vote. It’s insulting to voters to think that she now finds the situation a violation of civil rights. Politicians tend to be self-serving, but Senator Clinton is in danger of taking the concept to new heights. Her credibility is at stake. She needs to spend the days leading up to the DNC rules committee meeting on Michigan and Florida focusing on her legacy, not reminding people that her principles are so fluid.

Senator Clinton has moved beyond being a candidate. She’s a cause now, both in her own mind and those of her strongest supporters. You don’t end a cause three weeks before the end. Hopefully, you don’t do damage to your legacy with just three weeks to go either.

Clinton’s Earned the Right to Continue

It’s not easy running for office, especially for president. It’s not just the hours that are grueling and the food that is, well, grueling.  It’s not just the ceaseless travel, time away from family and having to give to the same speech over and over and over and over again. It’s also putting yourself totally on the line. It’s voluntarily making yourself a fair target for late night television jokes, for water cooler gossip, for talking head nonsense, for your opponents’ attack teams and for bloggers everywhere.

If you’re running just for ambition or ego it’s not worth it. If, however, there’s more to your campaign than self-aggrandizement, if you care about issues and politics and public policy, then it’s a price wroth paying.

I believe Senator Hillary Clinton does mix public concern with personal ambition. I’ve never been a fan of hers. Her health care reform efforts in the early 90’s were the epitome  of the elitism she now attacks: only she and her team had the answer – opinions from others were treated as attacks, not helpful advice. It was an attitude that marked her tenure as First Lady.

That arrogance, now coupled with a sense of entitlement, marked her presidential campaign from the start. The combination was more than off-putting, it was insulting. The tactics she turned to when the going got tough were demeaning, ham fisted and boneheaded. I got my start in politics over 35 years ago working for women candidates when they were few and far between. I’d like to see a woman as president in my life time. I just never wanted to see Senator Clinton as president.

Yet I also recognize that her current health care reform proposal, while seriously flawed, is better fashioned than Senator Barack Obama’s. And I do believe buried beneath the calculation and spin that marks her campaign, there’s a sincere commitment to improving the wellbeing of average Americans. It’s this sincerity and passion for public service that makes her campaign meaningful and, for her, worth the cost.

You know she’s lost the nomination. I know she’s lost the nomination. Even while praying for an unexpected, earthshaking revelation about Senator Obama, she knows it, too. Still, if she wants to play on through to the last primary she should. She’s earned that right. She’s paid the price of admission – in time, pain, money, occasional humiliations and frequently indigestible food. Those calling for her to withdraw should quiet down for at least a few weeks.

Dreams die hard. Senator Clinton dreamed long and fervently of the Democratic nomination in 2008. Less than five months ago it seemed achieving that dream was a certainty. Now it’s certain not to be. If Senator Clinton needs time to come to grips with that, let’s give her the time.