Obama, Cabinet government, and John Holdren

By Kennedy Maize

Some of my friends on the left have been lamenting the Cabinet choices of president-elect Barack Obama. One of them wrote in an email recently, “As the new government was put together, brick by brick, a disturbing pattern emerged. Time and again, those who had braved the perils of the Clinton… threat were passed over for those who came quite late to the party. Only Obama’s Illinois base prospered among his early supporters. The result: with the exception of Clinton, a bland and generally faceless cabinet.”

I don’t buy it. I don’t put much stock in Cabinet government. The Cabinet hasn’t been a major force in policymaking going back to the Johnson administration. Maybe it was in Kennedy and Ike, although the record isn’t very clear.

Cabinet secretaries and agency heads are mostly figureheads, unless they have some special relationship with the president. I suspect the same will be the case with Obama. “Bland and faceless” is par for the course. Probably desirable. Robert Reich, neither bland nor faceless, was not a successful Secretary of Labor.
I’d focus on who plays pickup hoops with Obama, more than who sits at the Cabinet table. A solid 15-foot jumper will count for a lot with this White House. And that’s fine, as the president should rely on his own crowd, while taking seriously what his agencies tell him. Ultimately, the choices are Obama’s, not those of the agencies.

Take the Department of Energy (please). Steve Chu, with a Nobel in physics, has scientific cred (although DOE’s credibility as a science agency is vastly suspect). Bush’s final DOE appointment, Sam Bodman, also had some scientific credibility; look what it got him.

I’m not aware of any personal connection of Chu to Obama. The appointment is a look-good, feel-good choice (unless Chu has a really good cross-over dribble). Energy policy gets cooked in the White House political oven, not the DOE microwave.

Look at Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar for the Department of Interior, a good choice. Has Obama ever demonstrated any significant interest in what Interior does? I’m not aware of it.

EPA? Ditto.

When it comes to the formal White House staff, the situation is similar. White House Council on Environmental Quality? Nancy Sutley is a friend and an exceptionally-competent individual. She won’t be calling policy shots, but supporting them. She will be a technician, not a policymaker.

The same pertains with White House environmental and energy advisor Carol Browner (mistakenly labeled, shudder, “energy czar”), and White House science advisor John Holdren of Harvard’s Kennedy School of government. 

Holdren, to my mind, is a classic science policy fraud, who has mind-melded the Obama folks by his learned, bearded credentials. I wholly share — after some 30 years of interactions with Holdren — the judgment of John Tierney of the New York Times [http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/19/flawed-science-advice-for-obama/].

Tierney, the best science columnist now writing, said of Holdren on Dec. 19: “Does being spectacularly wrong about a major issue in your field of expertise hurt your chances of becoming the presidential science advisor? Apparently not, judging by reports from DotEarth <http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/12/18/a-strong-voice-on-co2-as-science-adviser/> and ScienceInsider <http://blogs.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2008/12/sources-john-ho.html> that Barack Obama will name John P. Holdren as his science advisor on Saturday. [UPDATE: Mr. Obama did indeed pick Dr. Holdren. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/21/us/politics/21science.html?ref=science>]”

I doubt that Holdren will be more than a nod by the administration to the current notion that that Bush administration censored “sound science” in favor of “political science.”’ I suspect Holdren will recommend a retreat from the Bush administration’s anti-scientific views on subjects such as stem cell research. That’s good.

On energy issues, Holdren represents “scientific correctness,” a totally repulsive notion when it comes to energy policy and climate science. But I suspect the science from the White House will clash head-on with the science from coal interests in Congress. The result: a fundamental stalemate, papered-over with unworkable schemes involving cap-and-trade prestigitation.

In Washington, everything is political, including science, law, accounting, history, medicine, and auto mechanics. I once told a coal industry group in a speech at a convention, when they were lamenting about the junk science involved with acid rain, “In Washington, you can have all the science you can buy.”

Enough of my rambling about the odious Holdren. Back to my major point. Appointments generally don’t matter. Obama will pay attention to folks he knows and trusts, and draw on his staff (including his cabinet) to cover his back. Most of Obama’s closest advisors won’t be Senate-confirmed officials, but White House insiders — David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, and the like.

Call me cynical. But that’s the Washington I know.