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Who Might Be in an Obama Cabinet?

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With Barack Obama possibly on his way to becoming the Democratic nominee for president, speculation abounds as to who might make up an Obama Cabinet.

While the role of the Cabinet has declined under President Bush—many department heads are virtually unknown inside and outside the Beltway—signs say Obama would take a different approach. Obama has surrounded himself with strong and opinionated advisers, and odds are that his Cabinet appointments would be more than window-dressing.

Secretary of State and national-security adviser? Obama has relied on four familiar Washington names: former national-security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski (Jimmy Carter) and Anthony Lake (Bill Clinton), former Clinton assistant secretary of State Susan Rice, and former Navy secretary Richard Danzig. Obama has recently distanced himself from Brzezinski, a controversial figure in the Jewish community. Retired general Anthony Zinni, if he doesn’t end up on the ticket as vice president, could also be a player.

Greg Craig, the Williams & Connolly partner who defended President Clinton in his impeachment trial, has been a vocal Obama supporter. He has experience at the State Department and has been a defense and foreign-policy adviser to Senator Ted Kennedy.

Two wild cards on the Obama foreign-policy team: Samantha Power, the Pulitzer-winning human-rights researcher and author, helped tutor Obama in foreign policy but resigned after comments where she called Hillary Clinton a “monster.” And Sarah Sewall, also a Harvard researcher, wrote the introduction to General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency handbook, now the bible of US forces in the Middle East. Either might take a leading role on the National Security Council or at the State Department or Pentagon.

A top candidate for attorney general would be rising-star congressman Artur Davis, a Harvard-educated Alabaman who worked as a civil-rights lawyer before becoming an assistant US Attorney and then winning election to the House in 2002.

On the economic front, Obama relies on a handful of academics likely to make the leap into government if he wins. The University of Chicago’s Austan Goolsbee, who writes the Economic Scene column for the New York Times, seems a shoo-in for the policy-focused Council on Economic Advisers, where under President Bush Glenn Hubbard became a powerful force. Harvard pension expert Jeffrey Liebman would likely be headed to the politically focused National Economic Council, where Robert Rubin got his start in the Clinton White House. A third name on Obama’s economic team is David Cutler, a Harvard health economist who served on both councils under Clinton.

There isn’t a clear front-runner for Treasury secretary, which could be good news for former secretary and Harvard president Larry Summers, who has been not-so-quietly campaigning to return to his old post. Timothy F. Geithner, head of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, would be a solid choice for Treasury.

Another stratagem for keeping financial markets calm would be to keep Henry Paulson, who has earned the respect of many Democrats, in office for a year or two.

Two Hillary Clinton backers who could wind up in an Obama White House are former Goldman Sachs executive and assistant Treasury secretary Gary Gensler and Covington & Burling’s Stuart Eizenstat, Carter’s domestic-policy chief and deputy Treasury secretary under Clinton.

Cassandra Butts, a former Dick Gephardt aide and Obama Harvard Law classmate who has been at the senator’s side since he came to Washington, would likely end up at least as director of the Domestic Policy Council. Globalization expert and Georgetown professor Daniel Tarullo might become US trade representative.

John Edwards, who preached about poverty and healthcare in his presidential campaign, could land in the Cabinet at a place like Health and Human Services. Former Georgia senator Max Cleland, who headed the Veterans Administration under Carter, might take the upgraded post of secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Three Republicans Obama has mentioned as possible Cabinet members are Chuck Hagel, Dick Lugar, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In the West Wing, Obama’s staff would probably include the people who have been at his side throughout his rise to power: top communications strategist Robert Gibbs, speechwriter Jon Favreau, and policy guru Chris Lu, another Harvard Law classmate.

Top strategist David Axelrod likely would avoid the mistake Karl Rove made and remain outside the White House. Spokesman Bill Burton has been with Obama since the start of the campaign and, if he doesn’t burn out, might be headed for the James Brady Press Briefing Room.

One open question: Would Obama keep Howard Dean as chair of the party? Dean is beloved by state and local leaders and could be an effective advocate for Obama outside the Beltway.

The Legend of Barack Obama

But, what if Hillary Clinton gets the nomination?

A possible McCain Cabinet.

This article is from the May 2008 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from the issue, click here

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