Obama announces Clinton, Gates, Holder appointments

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 1, 2008 

CHICAGO — President-elect Barack Obama named his national security team on Monday, vowing to bolster U.S. military strength with a renewed focus on diplomacy and alliances with other countries to combat terrorism and spread American values.

"The national security challenges we face are just as great and just as urgent as our economic crisis," Obama said as he unveiled the group. "In this uncertain world, the time has come for a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership to overcome the challenges of the 21st century."

Underscoring his commitment to a high-profile diplomatic push overseas, he named former Democratic primary rival Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, perhaps the only other American political figure as well-known around the world as himself, outside of President George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton. Obama noted Clinton's "tremendous stature" as he selected her to be the nation's chief diplomat.

The president-elect lauded his choices as an experienced and diverse team that will bring him sometimes dissenting views to inform his governing decisions, then will work together to implement his policies, focusing on using "all elements of American power."

The team includes:

  • Robert Gates as the secretary of defense. Gates, who now holds that job in the Bush administration, is the first civilian defense chief ever asked to stay on when a different party took over the White House. He's highly regarded for having steadied the military after six years of tumult under former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
  • Eric Holder as the attorney general. Holder was the number two at the Justice Department in the Clinton administration and served on Obama's search team for a vice president.
  • James Jones as the national security adviser. Gen. Jones is a retired commandant of the Marine Corps and a former supreme commander of NATO, a post that requires as much diplomacy as it does military skill. He's expected to be looked to as a consensus-forger.
  • Janet Napolitano as the secretary of homeland security. The Arizona governor recently won her second term and is an expert on illegal immigration.
  • Susan Rice as the ambassador to the United Nations. Obama will restore the position to Cabinet rank for his campaign adviser and former assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration.
Throughout, Obama stressed a shift in foreign policy from the Bush years to one stressing cooperation with key allies and with international organizations such as the United Nations, many of which felt a cold shoulder from the Bush administration. Rumsfeld once famously dismissed allies such as Germany as "Old Europe" when they questioned the drumbeat for war in Iraq.

"We will renew old alliances and forge new and enduring partnerships," Obama said. "To succeed, we must pursue a new strategy that skillfully uses, balances and integrates all elements of American power: our military and diplomacy, our intelligence and law enforcement, our economy and the power of our moral example. The team that we've assembled here today is uniquely suited to do just that."

He called his team bipartisan, though when pressed he couldn't say for sure that Gates is a Republican just because he serves in a Republican administration. Still, he said he had and would reach out for advice from both parties.

"When it comes to keeping our nation and our people safe, we are not Republicans or Democrats. We are Americans. There's no monopoly of power or wisdom in either party," he said.

He also conceded that many of his appointees have disagreed with him on key points. Clinton, for example, criticized his willingness to talk without precondition to any foreign leader, even a dictator. Gates opposes setting a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.

"I assembled this team because I'm a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions. I think that's how the best decisions are made. One of the dangers in the 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. So I'm going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House," Obama said.

"But understand I will be setting policy as president. I will be responsible for the vision that this team carries out, and I expect them to implement that vision once decisions are made. So as Harry Truman said, the buck will stop with me."

With his economic team announced last week, Obama now has filled in most of the top slots in his Cabinet and White House staff. Still to come are such secondary Cabinet posts as the secretary of commerce, expected to be New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

"Now is the time for us to regain American leadership in all its dimensions," Obama said as he unveiled the group.

BILL CLINTON'S AGREEMENT: The path was cleared for Hillary Clinton's nomination when her husband signed an agreement this weekend to limit conflicts between his international work — making money from speeches and on issues such as AIDS — and his wife's diplomatic work as secretary of state. Bill Clinton agreed to:

  • Disclose the names of roughly 200,000 contributors to his foundation and all new contributors. Abandon day-to-day management of the foundation.
  • Refuse foreign contributions to the Clinton Global Initiative, his annual conference.
  • Stop holding that meeting in foreign countries.
  • Submit his speaking schedule to ethics reviews by the State Department and White House counsel.
  • Submit any new sources of income to ethics reviews.

The ethics reviews still could raise questions: The State Department would be controlled by his wife and the White House counsel would be Greg Craig, one of Bill Clinton's lawyers and a chief defender at his impeachment trial over lying in testimony to conceal an affair.

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