Rupert Cornwell: Coolly, calmly, Obama is putting together a remarkable team

Out of America: Even senior Republicans admit that – on paper, at least – the president-elect is assembling a very impressive administration
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The Independent Online

This is the hour of a Democratic restoration in Washington, but – with the possible exception of Hillary Clinton's "I do" of political marriage to Barack Obama – the most telling political words here last week may have been some grudging praise uttered by a Republican.

Mitch McConnell of Kentucky is as canny and crusty a Senate minority leader as they come. But even he confided to reporters that the new administration was "off to a good start". If McConnell is impressed, then Obama must be doing something right. In fact, three weeks after he secured the job, he's yet to make a serious misstep. If yesterday's flurry of reports are correct about Clinton and other impending cabinet appointments, then the president-elect is putting together one of the most impressive administrations of recent times – and doing so with a method and unflappability that can only bode well.

The formal announcement that Clinton will be the next secretary of state will only be made after this week's Thanksgiving holiday. But every piece of the puzzle is in place. Her husband's complex financial and global philanthropic activities have been vetted. Javier Solana, the EU foreign policy chief, gave his warm anticipatory blessing to the appointment on Friday, as did Henry Kissinger before him.

How quickly the barbs of the campaign trail are forgotten. Was it only a few months ago that Obama was deriding his rival's foreign policy experience as consisting of "having tea with ambassadors' wives" – while she was saying that his amounted to "a single speech in 2002" opposing the Iraq war? When he did not offer her the vice-presidential spot on the ticket last summer, it seemed as if the longest-running political soap opera of modern times was finally over. After defeating her in the primaries, Obama conspicuously did not make Hillary his vice-presidential running mate. Hillary, it seemed, would be content with toiling in the Senate vineyard, and US presidential politics would live quietly ever after. Not so. The soap is back on the air. Will the professional and personal lives of the two Clintons intersect? Will Bill make mischief with foreign policy freelancing?

Obama's motives are under the microscope. Some see him as trying to head off a potential rival in 2012; others see it as an attempt to heal party divisions. But judging by his other rumoured cabinet picks, he's done the blindingly obvious. He's had the self-confidence to pick the best person for the job, Clintonian baggage and all.

By the standards of most transitions, this one is far ahead of schedule. Arguably the most important single appointment, that of White House chief of staff, came within days of Obama's victory. Early this week the names of other future White House aides emerged, among them David Axelrod, his chief campaign strategist, and Gregory Craig, an old Clinton hand named as White House counsel.

Now the cabinet is taking shape, and its composition bears now traditional Obama hallmarks. Few of the names are surprises, all are respected figures of proven talent, and most have the credentials to reach across divides, at a time when the US has never been in greater need of bipartisanship at home and bridge-building abroad.

On Friday afternoon, when word leaked that Timothy Geithner was in line to become treasury secretary, the Dow Jones surged 400 points in an hour. As head of the New York Federal Reserve, Geithner has played a vital role in handling the Wall Street meltdown and would be a seamless replacement for the departing Henry Paulson. Not only is Geithner a Democrat who has perforce worked closely with a Republican administration, but he speaks Mandarin – suggesting an expert hand will be on the US tiller of "Chimerica", the crucial global relationship of this economic age.

For attorney general, the country's top legal and law enforcement official, Obama is looking to Eric Holder, who was number two at the Justice Department during Bill Clinton's second term. The one blemish on a glittering résumé is his role in the controversial pardons issued by Clinton when he left office.

The likely national security team, meanwhile, oozes experience. James Jones, tipped to be national security adviser, is a former marine general and supreme commander of Nato, well placed to nurture relations with Europe. Word is that Robert Gates, whose low-key competence at the Pentagon has earned him the respect of many Democrats, may well stay on there, for a year at least. "As a competent, credible team, it can't be faulted," says Ray DuBois, a former senior Pentagon official under Donald Rumsfeld.

The domestic appointments look similarly astute. Janet Napolitano, the Governor of Arizona, is Obama's apparent choice to run the sprawling Homeland Security Department. Tom Daschle, a former Senate majority leader, will be pushing healthcare reform as health and human services secretary. Bill Richardson would bring a new drive to the job of commerce secretary.

If the rumour mill is correct, the Obama administration will be one of the most impressive on paper assembled by a recent president. But talent is not everything, and high hopes are easily dashed. Half a century ago, "the best and the brightest" led the US into the Vietnam disaster. Closer to home, Harold Wilson's Labour government of 1974 is an equally sobering example. Wilson himself, Jim Callaghan, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins, Tony Crosland, Shirley Williams, Peter Shore and the rest had intellect and political heft to die for. But they are identified with one of the most dismal periods in post-war British history. There's no guarantee that the team assembled by Barack Obama won't prove a similar disappointment. As even Mitch McConnell conceded, however, the new kid's off to a pretty good start.