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Obama Tries the Parliamentary System

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Why has Barack Obama appointed three of his defeated opponents to top jobs? Why did he put Hillary in the State Department? And why has he filled other posts with people from other factions in the Democratic Party -- and a secretary of defense from the Republicans? One even doubts that a majority of Obama's Cabinet voted for him in the primaries!

There is method to his madness. Obama believes that the Democratic Party's total power -- everything but the courts -- means that if he can control the party, he can run the government. So he has amassed a Cabinet more akin to a European parliamentary model than to an American presidential system. Rather than appoint advisors and loyalists, he has named people who represent all wings of the party and its key players.

Any Democrat might have appointed a similar Cabinet. He has nominated what, in a parliamentary system, would be called the shadow Cabinet -- the people who have patiently waited in the wings to step into their designated portfolios after the party wins a general election. His theory is likely that if there are to be battles, they will be inside the administration.

Bill Clinton did the same thing. His was a White House staff and Cabinet of ambassadors to the wings of his party. George Stephanopoulos, his senior advisor, was the president's ambassador to the House Democrats. Chief of Staff Leon Panetta was ambassador to the congressional barons and committee chairmen of the Democratic Party. Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes was his link with the labor unions. Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was his ambassador to the black community, much as HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros was to the Latinos.

Both Clinton and Obama acted because their party controlled both houses of Congress, and control of the party equaled control of the government. And each knew full well that he was not his party's first choice for the nomination. The Democrats of 1992 would have preferred to nominate New York Gov. Mario Cuomo (who didn't run), and in the run-up to 2008, Hillary Clinton -- not Obama -- was the front-runner. So both men shored up their standing in the party by gathering around them all of its levers of power.

But while Clinton nominated a team of ambassadors, Obama has appointed a group of rivals. Nobody in the Clinton White House or Cabinet was his equal or could have considered challenging his renomination for a second term. But by naming Joe Biden vice president, Bill Richardson commerce secretary and, especially, by appointing Hillary Clinton secretary of state, Obama has filled his government with people who could run against him in the primaries of 2012 should he falter and his ratings sink -- just like former Attorney General Bobby Kennedy did to Johnson in 1968.

Even if these erstwhile rivals do not bring disloyalty to such a level, the likelihood is that they will always seek to burnish their own images, even if doing so hurts the president. There will be no American equivalent of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility in the United Kingdom, which bars members of a government from criticizing one another or their policies. In a political system in which people run on their own, it is still every man or woman for himself or herself in the United States. Press leaks, snide asides, under-the-breath mumblings and "independent" critics of the president inspired by those inside the administration are the stuff of everyday governance.

Imagine, for example, if we are hit again by the terrorists -- a good possibility now that Obama has appointed an immigration expert who knows nothing about terrorism to head Homeland Security and the man who pushed the pardon of the FALN terrorists to head Justice. The blame game will swirl about who was responsible and who let down his or her guard. Bet that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her people will circulate their version, even if it includes slighting the role played by President Obama.

And if the economy continues its nosedive and the public turns on Obama, also very likely, will putative rivals like Clinton and Richardson hold their tongues and keep their supporters from criticizing the White House? Not very likely.

Obama is playing a dangerous game.

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