Knowing what you don’t know

Published 2:23 pm Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What have we learned about Barack Obama since the election? What hints has he given about the kind of president he will be?

The main message he’s sending is one of steady self-confidence. But that does not show itself as arrogance. He has not emerged from the election saying, I won big, so I have all the answers. Quite the opposite.

Most of his early appointments are older and more experienced than he is. He seems to know what he doesn’t know. And instead of rejecting strong personalities and diverse views, he’s inviting them. As Obama noted when he introduced his foreign-policy team: “One of the dangers in the 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.”

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In truth, Obama himself is the least prepared, and least experienced, of all the major figures in the new administration. Unavoidably, he’ll go through a period of on-the-job training (as all presidents must, to some degree). Given the crushing economic and security crises that will greet him in six weeks, he cannot afford a team of neophytes around him.

During the campaign, he heavily criticized Hillary Clinton’s foreign-policy record, but by naming her secretary of state he has said, in effect: I was wrong about her, she does have experience and experience matters.

His post-primary view of Clinton reveals another useful trait: the ability to learn, to adapt to changing circumstances, to avoid becoming intoxicated by his own campaign rhetoric. Pragmatism and compromise are not signs of betrayal or deceit; they are essential elements in effective leadership.

Take Obama’s view of the Iraq war. His antiwar supporters embraced one dimension of his campaign: his early opposition to the original invasion. But they largely ignored the second half of his position: that he would be “careful” extricating the troops and would always, as he repeated this week, “listen to the recommendations of my commanders.”

Already critics on the left, such as Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation, are complaining “that not a single top member of Obama’s foreign-policy/national-security team opposed the war — or the dubious claims leading up to it.”

But Obama is not facing a choice of going to war or not, and he’s not focused on pointing fingers or assessing blame, as he was during the campaign. His job now is extricating the country from the mess in Iraq, and redirecting the military’s focus and resources to the ongoing battle against terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

To do that effectively, he has to establish relations with many stakeholders and constituencies, starting with the country’s military leadership. Since he has never served in uniform, and comes with a dovish reputation, he has a difficult task ahead.

That’s why retaining Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and appointing retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones as national security adviser, are shrewd moves. They say to the uniformed services, who vote heavily Republican, I will hear you and respect you. Obama is much better off having the support of the Pentagon than The Nation.

The president-elect is taking the same attitude toward another Washington power center, the Congress. Despite expanded Democratic majorities, lawmakers too expect to be heard and respected by the White House. And while Obama himself barely made a mark during his four years in the Senate, he’s surrounded himself with people who know how Congress works.

The last two Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, made the mistake of naming home-state pals with no Washington experience to serve as their chiefs of staff. Obama chose a Chicago chum, Rahm Emanuel, but he was a member of the House Democratic leadership. Vice President-elect Joe Biden and Tom Daschle, the new head of Health and Human Services, served a combined total of 62 years in Congress. Lawmakers know they will have friends in the White House.

And it’s not just the Democrats. Obama dissuaded his own party leaders from punishing Sen. Joe Lieberman for supporting his rival, Sen. John McCain. That gesture of generosity tells Republicans, including McCain, that the new president will not govern in a strictly partisan or punitive way.

So Obama’s off to a good start. He seems to understand that “change you can believe in” only comes when a leader appreciates the power centers in Washington and knows how to use them. And that learning and adapting are signs of strength, not weakness.

(Cokie Roberts’ latest book is “Ladies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation” (William Morrow, 2008). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be reached at