01/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Can Obama's Big Tent Team of Friends and Rivals Really Deliver Change?

President-elect Barack Obama chose a security team to implement strength at home and renewed standing abroad, with an understanding that "our destiny is shared with the world." Can Obama's big tent team of friends and rivals really deliver change? If they govern the way they presented today - yes they can.

Looking through the prism of all appointees - transformation, transparency and trust - a qualified yes.


Candidate Obama promised to change the tone in Washington, withdraw combat forces from Iraq, assert ourselves more forcefully in South Asia, and restore America's standing in the world.

As to tone, President-elect Obama presented a bipartisan team including people who did not campaign for him and likely did not even vote for him as well as others with strong opinions who differed with him during the campaign. Expanding on his selection of former Presidential rival Joe Biden as Vice President, Obama picked friends and rivals with impressive public service credentials: Senator Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense, Eric Holder as Attorney General, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano as Secretary of Homeland Security, Susan Rice as Ambassador to the United Nations and General Jim Jones as National Security Adviser. Their relationships bring in even more breadth - Robert Gates at Defense is allied with former Obama critic General Petreaus and Hillary Clinton at State brings in former President Bill Clinton, who curtailed his independent portfolio so that his wife might serve.

As to Iraq and South Asia, Obama renewed his campaign pledges to withdraw combat forces from Iraq in 16 months in consultation with generals on the ground and to redouble counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan and throughout South Asia which as a whole constitute the "single most important threat to the American people." And as to America's standing, Obama stressed that from markets to security to climate we will have to work together to face challenges and solve problems.

Each nominee stood with Obama as he announced these steps and committed to his or her part in this transformation. So far, so good.


Can a national security team be transparent? Obviously most deliberations are classified, so those who know don't talk publicly, and those who talk publicly don't know. So how will we know? Less drama, more disclosure.

Less drama: Rather than asking staff to merely flank him, Obama called them up one by one to pledge her or his membership on his team. Why? Because we know - and Obama knows we know - that administration officials always pledge unity and then leak like crazy once deliberations begin. But this time, each issued a public personal pledge to the job as Obama defined it: not to agree with him at all times - but to implement his vision one decisions are made. Talk about a big tent revival - this ego management technique is community organizing 101 - have people take personal responsibility to do a job and be held accountable for it. Armed with citizen media tools, we will be collectively monitoring their pledges: if the backbiting leaks come we will know pretty quickly whether these folks are doing their job as promised or breaking their word. Who wants to be the first person up there to star in a viral video with footage of their December 1 pledge crosscut with anti-Obama counter-organizing? Likely no one. This is not a campaign where drama is created to create contrasts - this is a governing team where competing ideas need full and frank pre-deliberative discussions. Anyone giving up a personal portfolio has to give up freelancing and the positive and negative drama that comes with it. As much as their friends in media and political circles may love drama, these public servants love America more. So the personal pledges were a good first step and proof point that the team knows they were hired for the specific transformation Obama pledged.

More disclosure: The Bush-Cheney administration was unnecessarily secretive, classifying documents and shielding decisions from public knowledge or oversight. Obama has pledged to change this culture. His national security team has a major role to play in public discussions of their vast non-classified portfolios. The more information placed and discussed in the public domain, the better opportunity to build national consensus on issue ranging from Iraq war policy to implementation of the 9/11 Commission reforms to comprehensive bipartisan immigration reform. We can expect more public testimonials and input on these critical issues in the days ahead. Again, we will know who is doing their job by their candor with the American people and their willingness to engage in public discussions with the ultimate decisionmaking authority vested in the President. While Obama is clearly comfortable with more disclosure and informed debate, his team - starting with the Bush-Cheney alums and their staffers - must adapt to his policies and practices in order to succeed. Moreover, elected officials are adjusting to life as appointed officials - just ask the Clintons. Throughout her candidacy, Hillary Clinton did not disclose her husband's business dealings; yet, in order to be Secretary of State, she and Bill Clinton agreed to disclose his donors and clear future efforts through the White House and State Department. More of this, please.


Can we trust Obama's team to restore international alliances, the rule of law, and the American ideal that each person fulfill their fullest human potential? Team Obama knows that the world will trust America again when we can trust our leaders again. Thus, President-elect Obama hired a staff whom he trusts to debate vigorously and then implement his vision. Then he got them to publicly pledge to do just that. This builds our trust that they will speak their minds, offer discreet counsel, respect his decisions, and then speak collectively with one voice. Not a groupthink that precludes dissent, but a unity built on consensus that moves America forward. Again, so far so good.

While many are skeptical that former rivals can actually work together to achieve change, 66 million Americans vested Barack Obama with the responsibility to try. He recommitted to his campaign promises and built a big tent government team of friends and rivals to implement them. Already each has publicly pledged to help formulate the transformation, to do so in a more transparent way, with the knowledge that we can trust them insofar as Obama can. Hungry for change, vigilant for results, we will watch and see with qualified hope.