Just five days after coordinated terrorist attacks killed nearly 200 people and wounded hundreds more in Mumbai, India, President-elect Barack Obama Monday unveiled his national security team, heralding a "new beginning for American national security."
What seemed more new than the names involved, however, was the larger concept: The group drew from the camps of various political rivals Mr. Obama has faced including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates from the current president’s administration; National Security Adviser-designee Gen. Jim Jones (Ret.), a friend of Sen. John McCain’s of more than three decades; and Democratic primary opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY, now his nominee to become Secretary of State.
"In this uncertain world, the time has come for a new beginning, a new dawn of American leadership to overcome the challenges of the 21st century and to seize the opportunities embedded in these challenges," Obama said at a Chicago press conference this morning.
In all, Obama announced six members of his national security team: in addition to Clinton, Gates and Jones, Mr. Obama announced Eric Holder for Attorney General; Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano for Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; and Dr. Susan Rice for Ambassador to the United Nations, a position Obama intends to give Cabinet rank.
Obama noted that he wanted a cabinet of "strong personalities and strong opinions" to avoid a White House where "everybody agrees with everything", while emphasizing that "the buck stops with me."
"I assembled this team because I’m a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions," Mr. Obama said. "I think that’s how the best decisions are made. One of the dangers in a White House, based on my reading of history, is that you get wrapped up in groupthink and everybody agrees with everything and there’s no discussion and there are no dissenting views. So I’m going to be welcoming a vigorous debate inside the White House. But understand, I will be setting policy as president."
Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who in October guaranteed that Obama would face an international crisis within six months of taking over the Oval Office, praised the Illinois lawmaker for putting together "one of the most talented national security teams ever assembled."
ALL EYES ON HRC
Despite the unveiling of a half-dozen picks for the national security team, all of whom spoke today, the attention of the press fell predominantly on one in particular: Clinton.
In the not so distant past, the New York lawmaker was vigorously outlining her differences and criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy approach, suggesting that Mr. Obama was naïve, reckless, and unprepared for the job of President. Those days seemed long gone, as the two exited the room arm in arm.
"I think she is going to be an outstanding Secretary of State," predicted Obama. "And if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have offered her the job. And if she didn’t believe that I was equipped to lead this nation at such a difficult time, she would not have accepted."
In both of their remarks, the two former rivals showered one another with praise, with Obama saying his selection of her was "not a light-bulb moment" and shrugging off a question about their campaign trail battles as merely "fun for the press."
"During campaigns or during the course of election season, differences get magnified," he said. "I did not ask for assurances from these individuals that they would agree with me at all times. I think they understand and would not be joining this team unless they understood and were prepared to carry out the decisions that have been made by me after full discussion."
"And, you know, most of the people who are standing here are people who I’ve worked with, and on the broad core vision of where America needs to go, we are in almost complete agreement," he continued. "There are going to be differences in tactics and different assessments and judgments made. That’s what I expect; that’s what I welcome. That’s why I asked them to join the team."
Calling her "an American of tremendous stature… who will command respect in every capital," Obama said that "Hillary’s appointment is a sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances."
For her part, the former First Lady assured Obama that she would give "this assignment, your administration, and our country my all," while noting that his election demonstrated Americans’ desires for "not just a new direction at home but a new effort to renew America’s standing in the world as a force for positive change."
"I believe the best way to continue serving my country is to join President-elect Obama, Vice President-elect Biden, the leaders here, and the dedicated public servants of the State Department on behalf of our nation at this defining moment," Clinton said. "President Kennedy once said that engaging the world to meet the threats we face was the greatest adventure of our century. Well, Mr. President-elect, I am proud to join you on what will be a difficult and exciting adventure in this new century."
Added the former First Lady: "And may God bless you and all who serve with you and our great country."
Another national security team pick who has disagreed with Obama in the past is Defense Secretary Gates, specifically regarding a withdrawal plan from Iraq, prompting one reporter to ask if Gates — a registered Independent who has only served in Republican administrations — fills the "requirement for a Republican in the cabinet."
"I didn’t check his voter registration," replied Obama, as Biden laughed and put his arm around the Pentagon chief.
"I have complete confidence in Secretary Gates being able to carry out his tasks," continued the President-elect. "And I think the point here is that I didn’t go around checking people’s political registration. What I was most concerned with was whether or not they can serve the interests of the American people."
With Gates by his side, Obama reiterated that he intends to pull American troops out of Iraq within 16 months.
"I believe that 16 months is the right time frame, but, as I’ve said consistently, I will listen to the recommendations of my commanders," Obama promised. "And my number-one priority is making sure that our troops remain safe in this transition phase, and that the Iraqi people are well served by a government that is taking on increased responsibility for its own security."
Obama’s pick for National Security Advisor, Gen. Jones, appeared on the campaign trail alongside Obama’s general election rival, Republican nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., though he never formally endorsed the Republican senator. But today former NATO commander Jones said he was "deeply humbled and deeply appreciative of this great opportunity."
Holder, Napolitano, and Rice were all considered long-time members of the Obama world and therefore less surprising picks.
Differences or not, Obama said his team had met this morning to discuss last week’s mayhem in Mumbai, still fresh in the minds of many, as he noted that he was "heartbroken" about the deaths of six Americans there.
"In the world we seek, there is no place for those who kill innocent civilians to advance hateful extremism," he stated. "This weekend, I told Prime Minister Singh of India that Americans stand with the people of India in this dark time. And I am confident that India’s great democracy is more resilient than killers who would tear it down."
Since the Mumbai terrorists crossed over from Pakistan to attack the India coastal city last Wednesday, tension between the two neighboring countries has mounted. Forecasting "very delicate diplomacy" in the coming days and weeks, Obama was reluctant to comment on the situation today, but he did say he expects Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to "follow through" with the commitment he made to cooperate with the investigation.
The President-elect also gave a limited response when asked by ABC News if he believed India had the right to attack high-level terrorist targets in Pakistan with our without the Pakistani’s government’s permission, if given actionable intelligence. During the campaign, Obama had said he believed that the U.S. had the right to do so.
"Sovereign nations obviously have a right to protect themselves. Beyond that, I don’t want to comment on the specific situation that’s taking place in South Asia right now," Obama responded, having already reiterated that "there is only one president at a time."
Obama’s transition to power won’t be complete until inauguration still over six weeks away, but today he expressed hope that the confirmation process for his national security picks will "proceed swiftly" so that his administration can "hit the ground running".
The Obama logistical staff once again split the press conference room seats according to a local Chicago reference. Once it was White Sox/Cubs, but a local newspaper challenged Obama Transition advance team staffers to come up with something more imaginative. Today’s divide? Frango or Garrett’s Peanut Shops.
The newser was Obama’s fifth since he was elected President and his fourth in the past eight days, with the previous three last week all focused on the nation’s slumping economy.
– Matt Jaffe and Jake Tapper