Messages in Obama’s picks

It is hard to criticize a campaign that has been as well run as Barack Obama’s, yet one has to wonder just what message they were trying to send this week with the selection of Patti Solis Doyle as “chief of staff to the vice presidential candidate.” Doyle, rightly or wrongly, was fired by the Clinton campaign for mismanagement. She was widely blamed by Clinton insiders for not getting Iowa organized and for spending too much money too fast. Admittedly, that campaign seemed to embrace finger-pointing as a favorite team sport, but she must share some of the blame of a flawed strategy with Mark Penn and other key Clinton advisers.

Never mind that whoever Obama chooses to be his running mate will likely want to pick his or her own team leader — this move seems intended to send a message that Hillary Clinton won’t be that choice. Surely there was a less contentious way of sending a message about Hillary’s future, about reaching out to Hispanics and to women, than this choice. There may be some wisdom here that I just don’t see, but it seems all they’ve done is offend a lot of Clintonistas.

Which leads us to other choices Obama might make and the messages they will send to voters. The presumptive nominee is well-positioned not only to win the presidency, but also to change the nation significantly. As Mark Mellman wrote in these pages Wednesday, the fundamentals argue in favor of an Obama victory, no matter what mid-June polls might suggest. The economy is now seen as more important than the war in Iraq by a 2-to-1 margin in most polls, with healthcare coming in third. Incumbent fatigue has set in, and even though President George W. Bush will not be on the ballot this November, he has so damaged the “Republican brand” that it seems almost certain a President Obama will take office with a strong majority in both houses of Congress.

This is, as everyone knows, a change election. Barack Obama recognized that early and made “change” the central theme of his campaign. If, as we suspect, Obama is elected president, he will be well-positioned to truly be an agent of change, moving the country in new directions and making his mark on history.

Despite the battered position of the Republican Party — or possibly because of it — a President Obama would do well to recall the example of Abraham Lincoln and form a government of diverse opinions, backgrounds and partisan labels. He would do well to establish that he’s a person who wants to hear contrarian views, unlike his predecessor. I won’t presume to advise the candidate on his selection of a vice president, but reaching outside the lines of traditional thinking would be a good place to start. Someone like a Mike Bloomberg or a Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) would send a strong message that extreme partisanship has no place in his administration and that character, judgment and ability are values the candidate cherishes.

He has already made clear that he will seek a new direction in American foreign policy — not just an end to the war in Iraq but a new vision of America’s role in the world that recognizes the “rise of the rest” that journalist Fareed Zakaria writes of in his new book, The Post-American World. As Zakaria writes, “It’s true China is booming, Russia is growing more assertive, terrorism is a threat. But if America is losing the ability to dictate to this new world, it has not lost the ability to lead.” Obama seems to understand that concept and the right choice of a vice president or a secretary of State will not only send a clear message to the world, it will make changing failed policies much easier.

In a year when many Democrats will be pushing for dramatic changes in healthcare, energy and tax policy, a President Obama must also make clear he understands the limits of change. Rushing to an extreme end of the political spectrum, as President Bill Clinton did in 1993-94 with his healthcare plan, may well lead to the same end: failure. Americans do much better with evolutionary change, and a president who can forcefully deliver that message to his own party stands a far better chance of success.

Candidate Obama will make some important choices in the next few months, choices that may determine whether he actually becomes a president who can change the world. We all hope he makes the right ones.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen.  E-mail: ben@gcsa.com