01/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Canaries in the Coal Mine

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. - Charles Dickens

The winter of despair, indeed.

In the one calendar month since Obama was elected, the country's third largest bank abruptly broke down and the world's second largest city got blown up. That the president-elect has nevertheless inspired a "spring of hope" at home and abroad is as unbelievable as it is undeniable. After his impressive series of economic conferences, even I (a cheerful skeptic) am starting to believe Obama will overcome this (it's-officially-a) Recession.

The biggest question for me is not whether Obama can deliver (answer: yes he can) but when, and with whose help? Most pundit-buzz-of-the-moment concerns Obama's Cabinet choices: Clinton, Geithner, Holder, etc. The picks are right on the money (so to speak) but do not necessarily account for how things will go, come January. History reminds us that Cabinet members rarely have that significant an impact on a President's fortune. Only 2-3 tend to make a difference, be it positive (e.g. Truman and George Marshall, Clinton and Bob Rubin) or negative (e.g. W and Rumsfeld, LBJ and McNamara). Does anyone know who Ann Veneman is, or know what she did for whom? Rodney Slater? Dick Thornburgh? They're all former Cabinet members, celebrated at the moment of their nominations, who exerted about as much influence as Biden did during Obama's victory run.

For real clues about Obama's chances of success in 2009, look beyond his fancy Cabinet and keep your eyes on these six canaries in the coal mine. They may live in cities other than Washington, speak languages other than English, make money via means other than approval-mongering--but they may just become key players in the new Obama administration. (And yes. If you just scrolled down, you read it right. One is a rapper. Welcome to the epoch of belief.)

p.s. Think I'm wrong? Did I miss someone? Post a comment and let us know.

#1 The Genius from Jixi

2008-12-02-hujintao.jpgOK. We get it. It's the economy, stupid -- and Obama has surrounded himself with some serious smarty-pants to fix it. Treasury Secretary nominee Tim Geithner, NEC Chairman Larry Summers, adviser Paul Volcker, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke are about as good a Dream Team as you get. But to gauge the fate of Obama's economic recovery efforts next year, keep your eye on Hu Jintao, China's President. Why? Because China holds the notes on about 5% of all United States debts. And as any homeowner can tell you, an unhappy lender can wreak havoc on a fragile borrower (e.g. the US economy) at any time. To stabilize the economy (not to mention providing health care and sparking alternative energy solutions), President Obama is going to need to borrow money. One guess who's sitting on stacks of cash right now? Ding, ding, ding. China. A poor prodigy turned hydraulics engineer (cue E-40's "Poor Man's Hydraulics"), Hu now oversees $1.9T (that's T for trillion) in reserves.

#2 The New E.F. Hutton

2008-12-02-Orman.jpgTo resuscitate the domestic economy, President Obama needs consumers to get excited about domestic spending again. And, with all due respect to the Dream Team aforementioned, the authority on America's pocketbook issues is former waitress turned financial adviser Suze Orman. With six NYT best-sellers, shows on CNBC, PBS, and a regular Oprah gig, the fast-talking lesbian has arguably become America's new E.F. Hutton. Getting the American economy back on track will require more than good monetary policy, trade deals, and (more) economic stimulus. President Obama is going to need Orman to do what his Treasury Secretary probably cannot: get 200M+ American consumers not just to clean up their debt, but return to spending and investing (albeit more prudently than before). When this woman talks about whether to buy that new house, lease that new car, or adopt that new Chihuahua, financially-ailing Americans tend to listen. If Orman can help consumers to straighten up and fly right, Obama will be well on his way to a terrific 2009.

#3 The Brother from Another Mother

2008-12-02-DaSilva.jpgThey say "good writers borrow; great writers steal." The same might be said of politicians. To pick off some best practices in energy reform, health care, and economic development, President Obama need look no further than Brazil's distinctive President Lula da Silva. Since taking office in 2002, this innovative policy leader has radically transformed his country. Poverty has decreased by almost 20%; some 30% of Brazilian cars now run on sugar instead of pure gasoline; and Da Silva has expanded access to health care to the poor, cutting drug prices by up to 70%. While Clinton, Daschle and others will undoubtedly matter, "Brazil's Obama" (as one newspaper called him) could become one of the president's most important exemplars.

#4 The Frenemy

2008-12-02-CoburnA.jpgWith the possible exception of FDR, no modern president has been able to rely exclusively on his own party to make major legislative changes. To get big things done, most presidents haven't just "reached across" the aisle; they've "palled around" with members of the other team (think W and Ted Kennedy, Reagan and Tip O'Neill). Odd as it sounds, much of Obama's ultimate success may come down to a 6-foot accountant-turned-doctor, the conservative firebrand Tom Coburn. Coburn is so hard right he doesn't think Newt Gingrich is a real conservative. But while Coburn and Obama's politics differ, the men struck up a special friendship when both were elected to the Senate as outsiders in 2004. Together they co-sponsored a bill on government spending that still stands as Obama's biggest legislative achievement to date. Coburn's cooperation on major changes to energy, taxes, Iraq, and even deficit reduction may ultimately be one of the most critical components to Obama's success.

#5 The Four-Star Stud

2008-12-02-MullenB.jpgAs the 60-hour assault on Mumbai reminds us, President Obama will not only have to settle Iraq and Afghanistan but be prepared to handle the "unexpected." Smart advisers like Secretary Gates and Homeland Security Chief Napolitano will matter -- but Admiral Mike Mullen may be the man most capable of procuring military success. Once upon a time, his official title (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) was a big deal. But the Bush administration redefined the role of highest-ranking military officer as first Donald Rumsfeld then General David Petraeus became the only voices that mattered in Iraq. In a non-Saddam-centered world where the safety of the United States is still very much at stake, Joint Chiefs Chairman Mullen will be heard. Make no mistake. President Obama will need to consult him about cutting not just Iraq expenses (~$100B a year) but US military expenses in general (~$500B per year).

#6 The Bard

2008-12-02-Wayne.jpgThere are very few forces as commercially or psychically powerful as Hip-Hop. Evolving over the last 30 years into a global, billion-dollar industry, Hip-Hop has played an unexpected role in domestic politics for the last three. From Kanye's pronouncement during Hurricane Katrina to's powerful campaign video this year, artists have proven that they can reshape the American political landscape. Sometime next year, the president will inevitably face the question: "Is Obama keeping it real?" For an answer, keep your eye on 26-year-old Dwayne Carter, Jr. -- the international superstar known as Lil Wayne. If New Orleans' Native Son is feeling President Obama (not just symbolically, but on policy), you'll hear it on the radio, on his blog and on TV. A rousing (and rhyming) endorsement could give Obama some politically valuable street cred as he tries to balance tough fiscal realities with the real desire for change in education, the economy and health care. Just think back. Sinatra's continuing endorsement helped keep JFK cool through his early struggles. Let's see if Lil Wayne (and the broader hip hop community) will do the same for BHO.