The Big Idea

The Genius Cabinet

Why the president-elect should surround himself with brilliant—albeit prickly, semi-autistic, and egomaniacal—thinkers.

Here’s a radical suggestion: Barack Obama should pick the smartest people he can find for his Cabinet.

Brilliance has sometimes been a criterion in presidential appointments, of course, but seldom the major one. It usually takes a back seat to rewarding friends and backers, playing congressional politics, seeking diversity, and appeasing industry and interest groups. Presidents also feel obliged to avoid too many retreads and place a high premium on personal loyalty.

Obama can’t avoid such considerations, of course. He needs to cultivate his congressional relationships, avoid alienating allies where possible, and rely on people he trusts. President No Drama doesn’t want a Cabinet full of undisciplined prima donnas. But it makes sense for Obama to give greater weight to intellectual acumen and subject-specific knowledge than his recent predecessors have, both because of the depth of the problems he faces and because of his own style as a thinker and a decision-maker. Bush, whose ego was threatened by any outburst of excellence in his vicinity, politicized all policymaking and centralized it in the White House. Obama, happily, has the opposite tendencies. He is intellectually confident, enjoys engaging with ideas, and inclines to pragmatism rather than partisanship. He can handle a Lincolnesque “Team of Rivals” or a FDR-style brain trust. And he’s going to need one.

The issue starts at the Treasury Department, where the best choice would be former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. Summers is the outstanding international economist of his generation, someone whose brilliance is immediately evident in any conversation. I happened to run into him at a dinner in New York a couple of days after Lehman Bros. was allowed to collapse. Summers analyzed the situation, which he said had suddenly become far more dangerous, with a clarity I haven’t heard from anyone else since. He explained that it was simultaneously a crisis of liquidity, solvency, and confidence and that the government would ultimately have to inject capital into financial institutions and not just buy up distressed assets. It took Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson another three weeks, a defeat in Congress, and a jump-start from Gordon Brown to find his way to a similar conclusion.

Summers can also be arrogant and politically incorrect. He sometimes does a poor job hiding his contempt for lesser intellects and loves to play the intellectual provocateur. Socially, he can be a bit autistic. But these are the defects of a superior mind, and they are a small price to pay for getting the person most likely to maximize our chances of avoiding a full-scale global depression. To say that Summers is the best person for the job of treasury secretary is no knock on others frequently mentioned, including New York Federal Reserve President Timothy Geithner and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, both of whom are highly qualified. But if chosen, the first thing either of them would do is call Summers for advice.

It’s a similar story at the State Department, where the Great Mentioner has dropped a number of plausible names, including those of Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Either would be a good choice, if it didn’t mean passing over the person they both get their best foreign policy advice from, Richard Holbrooke. Holbrooke dominates the field like no one else on the Democratic side. He has a quick and supple mind, understands all the issues, knows the leaders, and has a proven record as a diplomat and peacemaker. At Dayton, Holbrooke single-handedly ended the war in Bosnia by sheer force of personality.

Holbrooke has some personal defects, too. He is legendary for his relentless ambition and self-promotion. To say he rubs some people the wrong way puts the proposition mildly—he’s a handful. He also backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries. But as with Summers, Holbrooke’s flaws hardly rate in the context of the urgent need to rebuild relationships, manage complex security threats, and develop a tough-minded liberal vision of American’s role in the world. The president-elect should pick Holbrooke simply because he’s the best available player at a hinge moment in history. 

The genius principle should also be applied to the lesser agencies, where many of the names being trotted out have a dreary, box-checking quality. Obama says transitioning to renewable sources of energy is his second-highest priority after saving the economy. So why not talk the brilliant, socially awkward Al Gore into taking the job of Energy Secretary? Following the anonymous Samuel W. Bodman might seem like demotion for the former vice president and Nobel Prize winner, but it would give Gore a chance to accomplish his life’s mission by addressing climate change (and make up for his neglect of the issue when he was vice president). If the president wants a first-class legal thinker to help him clean up the Justice Department, he can’t go wrong with his old Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, his University of Chicago colleague Cass Sunstein, or Stanford law professor Kathleen Sullivan. For Education, he might choose Joel Klein, the chancellor of the New York City school system. Klein has not gone through life making friends, but he has shown himself an unusually shrewd and committed thinker about educational management and reform. Better yet, what about getting Bill Gates to tackle the problem?

Among the intangible tasks Obama faces is vanquishing the anti-intellectualism of the past eight years, the prejudice that serious policy discussion is too effete for the Cabinet Room or the Oval Office. If he really wants to bring change to Washington, the new president should start by putting a sign in his window: No hacks.