A president’s cabinet is not always a useful way to evaluate the merits of a presidency. Lincoln, arguably the nation’s most illustrious president, had cabinet members that often worked against him and sometimes made disparaging remarks about Lincoln to members of the press.
George W. Bush put a premium on loyalty among his cabinet members, but he may have put too great an emphasis on loyalty and too little on competence.
Perhaps the presidential cabinet that received the most fanfare was JFK’s Harvard boys. Headlined as “the best and the brightest” by media panjandrums, the Kennedy cabinet became the darlings of the press corps. Camelot arrived on the Potomac. It seemed as if the encomiums would never cease.
History, however has not treated them so favorably. McGeorge Bundy, who was reputed to be the smartest kid in any class he attended, was mercurial and unreliable. McNamara, had a reputation as an astute business leader, but his commitment to the Vietnam War and then repudiation of it, made him look buffoonish. Sorenson and Schlesinger, bright as they were alleged to be, ended up looking obsequious and spineless.
In fact, it was the Kennedy cabinet that prompted Bill Buckley to say “I’d rather be ruled by the first one hundred names in the Boston telephone directory than the Harvard faculty.”
But however history has treated the Kennedy boys, at the very least they had resumes. They were thought to be people of talent. They did things. They wrote, managed, invested, taught and led.
It is tempting to compare the Kennedy boys, about whom I have never been impressed, with the Obama cabinet. As I see it, the Obama team embodies the same amateur sensibility as the president. The poster boy for the cabinet is Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, a former head of the New York Federal Reserve who emerged from the shadows onto center stage during the presidential campaign.
Geithner looks and acts as if he is a deer caught in the headlights. When asked to explain his plan for stabilizing the banking crisis, he spoke with ellipses, leaving even his most ardent supporters dumbfounded at the sheer emptiness of his comments.
But that was merely the beginning. When there was a public outcry about bonuses at AIG after the bailout with taxpayer money, Obama and Geithner criticized these bonuses and sought a way to recapture the money. But it soon became clear that Geithner approved the bailout and possibly the bonuses, thereby undermining his credibility as the administration’s point man on the economy.
This controversy that feeds the populist instinct of the congressmen who embrace schadenfreude whenever a wealthy financier shows up in Washington comes at a time when details of the restructured bank rescue program are supposed to be announced. Geithner is clearly facing a headwind on this matter.
However, what stands out is that the Obama cabinet doesn’t seem to have a clue. The Kennedy boys had resumes; this Obama team appears to be a group searching for answers without the requisite background to find them. In fact, this may be the first time in my life that the presidential cabinet seems to be populated by interns who are learning on the job.
This is no way to run a government. As I see it, Kennedy’s Camelot has ended up as Obama’s Spamalot. The dream that never was has been converted into the confusion that is all too real.
Cartoon by Brett Noel.