Smart White House personnel moves presage more inside-out foreign policy

This week, President Obama dug deep into the pool of 100 people who are considered for every senior Democratic position in Washington and came up with a couple of very good choices for top White House jobs. While those of you who follow these things might wonder if, in a country of 300 million people, ...

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

This week, President Obama dug deep into the pool of 100 people who are considered for every senior Democratic position in Washington and came up with a couple of very good choices for top White House jobs. While those of you who follow these things might wonder if, in a country of 300 million people, there might be a few fresh names who could produce a little fresher thinking, keep it to yourself.

That's not the way things work here in Washington -- the only city in the world in which someone like George W. Bush could have been described as an outsider upon assuming an office his father had held 8 years earlier.

In the rest of the world familiarity breeds contempt. In Washington, like in some towns in the Ozarks, familiarity just breeds.

This week, President Obama dug deep into the pool of 100 people who are considered for every senior Democratic position in Washington and came up with a couple of very good choices for top White House jobs. While those of you who follow these things might wonder if, in a country of 300 million people, there might be a few fresh names who could produce a little fresher thinking, keep it to yourself.

That’s not the way things work here in Washington — the only city in the world in which someone like George W. Bush could have been described as an outsider upon assuming an office his father had held 8 years earlier.

In the rest of the world familiarity breeds contempt. In Washington, like in some towns in the Ozarks, familiarity just breeds.

That said, there’s something to be said for hiring people in top jobs who actually know what they are doing. Bill Daley, the new White House chief of staff, understands how Washington works as well as anyone. What’s more, as Washington insiders go, he has a pretty rare skill set: he is actually able to speak several important languages. He is fluent in politics, business, and media and he is conversant in both D.C. and local dialects.

He has demonstrated over the past two decades great organizational skills and real perseverance. He was the quarterback who made the NAFTA war room whirr and produced one of Clinton’s most important early victories. He was a Commerce secretary who did not produce a lot of headlines but who did generate trust and good will from the business community. He was one of the people Al Gore came out of his 2000 campaign feeling best about, an absolutely essential player who performed the toughest tasks while generating real loyalty among those close to him. And he was a successful business person who the moment he entered the White House increased the administration’s understanding of the part of the economy that actually creates jobs many times over. While some liberal groups may decry his ties to Wall Street or his life in corporate suites, they are missing the point. There can be no successful progressive agenda that doesn’t figure out how to collaborate successfully with the people actually driving U.S. growth.

There has been some minor lefty hubbub over the fact that Gene Sperling, the incoming head of the National Economic Council, once did some work for Goldman Sachs. It is revealing that those who seek to complain about this are overlooking that it was work on a project to help promote educational empowerment for some of the world’s neediest. And, of course, in a job like the one Sperling is assuming, having a few contacts outside the world of inside-the-beltway wonks is actually a very good thing.

Gene has been one of the best of those wonks for a long time. He is exceptionally intelligent, extraordinarily hard-working, politically gifted and he has a truly good heart. Both he and Daley are among the "good guys", the folks in that tiny D.C. talent pool who you want to see at the top because not only do they know how to use power but they are likely to use it well.

Gene brings to bear another unusual set of attributes that are surprisingly rare given the in-breeding that produces most Washington appointments. In an economic team that thus far has included a lot of the right people in the wrong jobs, Gene is the right person to be head of the NEC in part because no one knows the job better than he does. When the NEC was created during the Clinton years, Gene was one of its first deputies at the side of Bob Rubin, its first head. He later assumed the top job at the end of the Clinton years. There is good precedent in government for people to returning to jobs like this. The best national security advisor, Brent Scowcroft, became that in part because he had two bites at the apple, serving in that capacity first under Ford and then, when he became the prototype for all his successors, under George H.W. Bush. I’m not saying Gene will necessarily achieve the same heights … but for all our sakes we ought to hope he does.

He also has another characteristic — that he shares with Daley — that is vitally important. Both men are far more likely to empower the Obama cabinet than their predecessors. If the president supports them in this — and that was the core question I raised in yesterday’s post — that could bring about a real positive change in the Obama administration’s operations. The president and the country will both be better served if both these guys’ experience — cultivated appreciation for process, delegation, and empowerment of the entire senior team in the administration — is allowed to translate into more inclusive management behaviors. (They have done this better from the outset at the NSC thanks to Tom Donilon.) It’s also worth noting in all this that another winner in this process is Tim Geithner, whose influence only grows with the appointment of his former counselor to the NEC job and who is emerging after a shaky start as one of the canniest bureaucratic players on the Obama roster.

The promotion of Jason Furman to be Gene’s top deputy is another excellent move. Furman is one of the behind-the-scenes stars of the Democratic economic thought-leader establishment for the past decade. Giving Ron Bloom a bigger role as the president’s manufacturing czar inside the White House as part of all this shifting around is also a telling sign that this president means business when it comes to making job creation the central objective of his remaining time in office.

For foreign-policy watchers, it would be fair to interpret this as a reshuffling that will not result in the elevation of international economic issues above the moderated level they had during the first two years of the Obama term. This is neither inappropriate nor is it unexpected. The primary job of work for Obama and his team is in restoring America’s domestic economy first. That doesn’t mean Daley and Sperling won’t be engaged internationally and indeed, both have plenty of experience in dealing with global issues. They were among those who made the core Clinton era international economic policy "making globalization work for America."

But this is rapidly becoming an administration that has as its central foreign policy precept the idea that strength begins and must be cultivated and preserved at home. It is just the kind of inside-out foreign policy America needs right now and frankly, it is the only kind of foreign policy approach the American people will support.

For all these reasons, this week’s big moves by the president are among the best recent personnel moves he has made and bode well for an administration about to begin its own second act.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.