Obama’s new Cabinet
Elisse B. Walter?
Is that really whom President Barack Obama named on Monday to be the new chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission? A woman who has been at the SEC for the last four years? And, to boot, someone practically joined at the hip with her predecessor, Mary Schapiro? Say it ain’t so, Mr. President.
No doubt, Walter is a fine public servant. What she is not, however, is a fresh face with new ideas. And isn’t that half the point of second-term appointments? They give a president a chance to name Cabinet or agency directors who can breathe new life into their departments. Second-term appointments are presidential do-overs.
Take, for instance, Timothy Geithner, the soon-to-be-departing Treasury secretary. All things considered, Geithner wasn’t a bad secretary. In no small part because of him, America’s banks are far better capitalized — and hence safer — than their European counterparts. But you always had the sense that his heart lay more with the bankers he was overseeing than the homeowners who needed help.
That is why our nominee to replace Geithner is his bete noire, Sheila Bair. As the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., a job she held until July 2011, she fought against bank bailouts while pushing for mortgage modifications. Her new book, “Bull By the Horns,” is mostly her inside account of the financial crisis. But she also offers a series of sensible policy suggestions. Wouldn’t you like a Treasury secretary who believes that interest on debt should not be tax deductible — whether for large financial institutions or home mortgages? I sure would.
Let’s move next to the State Department, where an exhausted Hillary Clinton is ready to step down. She has been, without question, Obama’s finest appointment. She was also his riskiest. The current favorite for the job, Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador, is a safe choice, but she doesn’t have the breadth that the job requires. Who does? How about Bill Clinton? Seriously.
The president’s worst Cabinet appointment, on the other hand, has been Eric Holder Jr. at the Department of Justice. Under him, the department got prosecutorial scalps by going after the small fry while letting big guys like Angelo Mozilo, the former chief executive of Countrywide, off the hook. Holder has also been tone-deaf in dealing with the Republicans in Congress. Our nominee is a man with a reputation for cleaning up messes: Ken Feinberg, a lawyer who now specializes in victim compensation programs. A former special counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee, he knows the territory. A master negotiator, he knows how to bridge divides. And his sense of fair play is exactly what this Justice Department most needs.
Department of Defense? David Petraeus. After disclosing an affair with Paula Broadwell and resigning as CIA chief, Petraeus is doing his stint in purgatory. The Defense Department in Obama’s second term is going to need someone who can cut its budget without hurting its mission — and who can reform the most entrenched bureaucracy in Washington. The military brass will run bureaucratic circles around any defense secretary who doesn’t know their tricks. Petraeus can stand up to them.
The current secretary of energy, Steven Chu, is a scientist. A far better choice is a committed environmentalist who also understands the importance of making intelligent energy choices. We know just such a man: Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund. Unlike most environmental groups, the defense fund supports using hydraulic fracturing — fracking — to drill for natural gas. He is on record as saying that there are enormous climate benefits to using natural gas — so long as methane leakage can be minimized. At the Energy Department, Krupp would be in a position to help make sure that happens.
With rumors that Arne Duncan may step down as secretary of education, we nominate Randi Weingarten to replace him. Risky? You bet. But as the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten has long claimed to support education reform, so long as it is done with the nation’s teachers instead of at their expense. Making Weingarten the next education secretary would give her the chance to put her money where her mouth is.
Which brings us back to the SEC. In The Times’ account of Walter’s promotion, it said that the White House might well offer up a new nominee in the future. We know the right man for the job: Sean Berkowitz. Berkowitz, who, in full disclosure, is a friend, led the Enron task force and prosecuted Enron’s top two executives, Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay. So he knows how to nail the bad guys, which has been a problem for the current SEC.
Since 2007, he has been the global chairman of litigation for Latham & Watkins, one of the nation’s largest law firms. Oh, and one other thing, Mr. President.
He’s from Chicago.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for The New York Times.