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Page last updated at 11:46 GMT, Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Washington diary: Obama in charge

By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

You could be forgiven for thinking that Chicago is the new Washington, that the president-elect is already running the country from there and that the West Wing has just become the Mid-West wing.

President-elect Barack Obama introduces more members of his economic team, Peter Orszag (left) and Rob Nabors (right)cu
Barack Obama is gearing up for action from day one of his presidency

Even though he assured us again on Tuesday - if assured is the right word? - that he will only take over the reins of power after Inauguration Day on 20 January, Barack Obama talks, decides and reasons as if those reins are already firmly in his hands.

He refers to his weekly radio address like a real president does.

Everything from his body language to his use of the present tense indicates that he already thinks of himself as the commander-in-chief, preparing everything for day one of America's 44th presidency.

The drastic times demand it, he tells us. But then so does his pragmatic and poignant nature, one might add. Compare his behaviour to the unbearable lightness of George W Bush.


Mr Obama is not just announcing his cabinet much earlier than most other presidents-elect in transition. He is also telling us in greater detail what his policies will be.

Here's the funny thing: stupidity and incompetence tend to go hand in hand

Earlier this week he announced a plan to get 2.5 million Americans back to work. Then he vowed to have his new director of the congressional budget office go through the existing budgets with a scalpel or an axe, depending on what is needed, to cut out any waste.

Previous presidents-in-waiting have also made such claims. But such is Mr Obama's steely-eyed determination and unsmiling sense of purpose that you actually believe him.

As Mr Obama said, talking about his erstwhile colleagues on Capitol Hill: "Friendship doesn't come into this. That's part of the old way of doing things."

You could hear someone, somewhere, gulping.

I also heard him say something that I have not heard for a very long time. As he introduced the latest members of his cabinet, Mr Obama said that they were individuals who had shown "great intellect" as well as courage and commitment.


Sarah Palin and John McCain built their campaign on the tradition nurtured under George W Bush of ridiculing intellect and articulacy as subversive values that rub up against the wholesome grain of middle America.

Mental agility was deemed less important than honesty, sacrifice and leadership. Perhaps.

But why not demand all four of your president and those who serve him? It turned out that a country in peril yearned for leaders with brains.

Because, and here is the funny thing, stupidity and incompetence tend to go hand in hand. So, darngonnit, why not forgive some high falootin' Harvard guy his best-selling memoirs and correct use of English, if he can get us out this mess? Sounds like a bargain to me.

Clinton legacy

When George Bush introduced members of his team, the highest accolade was that they were great Americans and true patriots. It always struck me as odd that patriotism could bestow competence.

President Clinton makes his final address from the Oval office on 18 January, 2001
Could the Obama team realise the failed promise of the Clinton years?

Was not allegiance to the flag one quality that could be taken for granted from anyone who had forgone a huge salary in private industry to earn a paltry one in public service?

Barack Obama, one imagines, assumes that the people who are taking on a raft of potentially soul-destroying jobs in tough times are doing so because they care about their country.

So what about the team? Yes, there are an awful lot of faces from the Clinton past.

Larry Summers, the new economic chief strategist used to be President Clinton's secretary of the treasury. Tim Geithner, the new secretary, worked under him. Peter Orszag, the new director of the congressional budget office is only 39 years old but has also worked for the Clintons.

Bill Richardson, expected to be secretary of commerce, is an old Clinton grandee. Susan Rice, tipped to be the new American ambassador at the UN, worked for Mr Clinton.

The list goes on and there is of course Hillary herself, although you could describe her as the only official from the Clinton era who never actually worked for the president.

Squandered potential

At some stage it would be refreshing to see some new faces from Silicon Valley or the Sun Belt brought into the clutches of government.

So here is my take on the matter. Thanks to the multiple distractions of Bill Clinton and his administration, some of America's brightest people were too busy ducking subpoenas or grappling with indecision at the top to perform their best work.

The Obama administration is a chance for them to prove their critics wrong and to live up to past expectations.

As Hillary Clinton used to say: "Let's undo the damage of eight years of George Bush!"

But how about also realising some of the squandered potential of eight years of Clinton? The state of the nation demands it. The state of the nation may render it impossible.

But as the man who still swivels his chair in the Oval Office once put it under different circumstances: "Bring it on!"

Matt Frei is the presenter of BBC World News America which airs every weekday on BBC News, BBC World News and BBC America (for viewers outside the UK only).

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