Columns, Opinion

RILEY: It’s test time

Near the end of the campaign, Joe ‘foot-in-mouth’ Biden prophesized, ‘it would not be six months before the world tests [President-elect] Barack Obama.’ Actually, it hasn’t even been one month since Obama’s victory and already it seems the world is determined to make itself a scarier place by Inauguration Day.

Here in the United States, Obama has more than enough on his plate as the economy continues its downward spiral. Last week we were reminded that a little thing called terrorism is still an international problem, and Russia is getting more aggressive. In addition, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have yet to be resolved and climate change remains a global challenge. Finding solutions to these problems will be tougher than Boston University’s most difficult finals this semester.

And how has the president-elect responded to these challenges? To be fair, there can only be one president at a time and it would be presumptuous for Obama to act like he is already the commander in chief. However, there is a real void of leadership in America at the moment, as the current president seems to just be counting the days until he can go back to his ranch in Texas and have the next president clean up his mess. To strike the right balance, Obama needs to show us how things are going to work when he takes over in a little more than a month.

During the campaign, one of the few ways to determine how a candidate would lead is through their choice of vice president. A similar logic applies during the transition period. The officials Obama chooses to serve in his Cabinet will demonstrate how he intends to govern. So far, his choices have been somewhat baffling. For someone who built his candidacy around change, his Cabinet will have a lot of familiar faces.

Take Obama’s foreign policy team, for example. At Secretary of Defense, Obama is keeping Robert Gates, who has served under President George Bush for the past two years. Some are applauding Obama for fostering a spirit of bi-partisanship by keeping Gates at this position and playing it safe by not changing the leadership at the Pentagon during times of war. But, on the other hand, Obama’s big selling point was turning the page on Bush’s failed international policies. Is keeping the man from the Bush administration who was in charge of military and defense matters really sending the message that change has arrived?

But Gates is far from the biggest controversy of Obama’s cabinet. It turns out that we could have four more years of Hillary Clinton in the White House after all ‘-‘- this time as secretary of state. This is quite a reversal of thinking from Obama, who wondered aloud during the Democratic primary, ‘What exactly is this foreign policy experience’ that Sen. Clinton claimed to possess.

During the primaries, candidates will launch harsh attacks against competitors from their own party, and all is forgiven by the general election. But Obama has portrayed himself as a new breed of politician, and therefore he has heightened our expectations of him. When he goes from belittling Hillary’s foreign policy experience to saying he has ‘no doubt that Hillary Clinton is the right person to lead our State Department,’ people are going to wonder if Obama means what he says in the future.

At first glance, including Hillary and many Cabinet officials from the Clinton presidency may be puzzling to some. Is this what Obama meant when he talked about bringing the change we need to Washington? Instead, it appears as though he brought a time machine that will transport us back to how the government was run in the 1990s.

Obama argues that change will come as a result of his leadership, regardless of how long those around him have been on the political scene. When questioned about the kind of Cabinet he would like to have, Obama has cited Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin as a kind of roadmap. Goodwin’s book documents how Abraham Lincoln handled his Cabinet that consisted of big ego’s who were once Lincoln’s competition. I’ve read the book as well, and while Lincoln certainly got a wide range of opinions from these rivals, some of them remained power hungry with greater concern for their own personal ambition rather than having loyalty to the president.

The goal of Obama’s strategy is to depart from Bush’s team of ‘yes-men’ who told the president what he wanted to hear instead of what needed to be said. It is a gamble that needs to be taken. Obama must be able to rein in the larger-than-life personalities of the political celebrities in his Cabinet, because America cannot afford any more leadership failures during these perilous times.

Neal Riley, a freshman in the College of Communication, is a weekly columnist for The Daily Free Press. He can be reached at

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  1. Christopher Coffee

    I don’t know what’s worse, comparing terrorist attacks to finals, or comparing this column to the Annus Mirabilis papers.

  2. I just needed to comment on the logic of the person commenting on Mr. Riley’s article. With this reasoning, namely that your career choice shackles your editorial expression, Benjamin Whorf (a mere fire insurance underwriter in Hartford) should not have commented on the relationship between language and culture, which inspired the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; a treatise that shook the linguistic dogma of the time. Also to further the commenter’s thinking and apply the same argument; Einstein (a patent examiner in Bern) should not have taken on the challenge to formalize the space-time continuum. I think Mr. Riley’s point was a good one. He is alerting us to watch how this ‘change’ platform unfolds, regardless of his major or his career choice.