12/12/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What We Need Now: An Ungrateful President

Barack Obama won an overwhelming electoral college and popular victory. He, more than any other president in recent history, has a clear mandate. More important, he owes his election to no particular individual, no group, no specific constituency, or no ideology. He won the election because he was an overwhelmingly superior candidate who ran an extraordinary campaign.

Now he faces one of the most difficult and challenging environments ever faced by an incoming president. He needs the very best people at his side. He should pick them based entirely on their merits. Only the most qualified individuals should be appointed to the most important positions, without regard to who they supported in the primaries, the amount of money they contributed to the campaign or the constituency they claim to represent. Choosing the best people to get us out of the difficulties we face should be like choosing a heart surgeon or an oncologist.

One of the first tests President-elect Obama will face is his selection of Treasury Secretary and other members of his economic team. If former Harvard president Larry Summers is the best qualified person to get us out of our economic crisis, he should be appointed, regardless of whether he offended some of Obama's constituents by comments he made while President of Harvard. A nation in crisis cannot afford litmus tests based on political correctness or the risk of offending some easily offended constituents.

Nor should the President necessarily seek the kind of precise ethnic, gender or racial balance that some will demand of him. His very election demonstrates that merit selection will produce balance without self conscience efforts to impose quotas, targets or other euphemisms for selections based on criteria other than pure merit, broadly defined.

The same criteria should apply in the filling of other critical cabinet positions such as Secretary of State and Attorney General. These are not rewards for past services performed to the candidate, to the party or even to the country. The people who are appointed to these positions will determine the future of our nation and of the world.

When Fiorello LaGuardia was elected Mayor of New York, he announced to his followers that he was going to be the most ungrateful mayor in history, because he was not going to show gratitude for those who helped elect him. He was the mayor of the whole city and he was going to pick the people best for the whole city. He turned out to be one of the greatest mayors in American history. Barack Obama should show the same type of ingratitude to those who helped him get elected. He is the President of the whole country, indeed the leader of the entire free world. In selecting his team, he should look to future opportunities -- to how he can help solve the critical problems of the nation and the world -- and not to past obligations.