Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is expected to spearhead the team as the next secretary of state, and here both the strengths and potential dangers of Obama's choice are clear. Clinton echoes another senator from New York and front-runner for his party's presidential nomination, Republican William Seward, who unexpectedly lost his chance for the presidency to upstart, inexperienced newcomer Abraham Lincoln in 1860.
Like Seward, Clinton will bring forcefulness, confidence and immense experience to her new job. But also like Seward, she may prove to be hard-charging and reckless, running the risk of clashes with both her president and the other heavy hitter in the new Cabinet, Robert Gates, who is expected to stay on, at least for a few months, as secretary of defense. Obama's choice as deputy secretary of defense will be closely scrutinized, as he or she will be expected to be Gates' eventual successor. The current front-runner for the position is Richard Danzig, the highly experienced former secretary of the Navy under President Bill Clinton.
The key domestic security appointments are expected to be Eric Holder as attorney general and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as secretary for homeland security.
Holder will take over a massive, long-established and relatively smoothly running bureaucracy where morale has collapsed over the past eight years. His top priority will be to close down the detention center for captured terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay and impose patterns of transparency, responsibility and due process on the wide-ranging network of secret prisons and detention facilities around the world that the Bush administration developed to fight the war on terror.
Napolitano, if appointed, will take over an alphabet-soup chaotic mess of agencies that a Republican Congress thoughtlessly and ineptly piled together that has never been run by anyone with any real executive experience, which she already has in spades. She's the perfect choice for the job. But it is going to be one of the messiest, hardest, most thankless jobs in the U.S. government.
Susan Rice, who was assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the first Clinton administration, will become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a post that Obama wants to raise to Cabinet-level status. She enjoys close personal ties to both the president-elect and Hillary Clinton, the expected secretary of state. She will spearhead the human-rights side of their agenda, and two of her priority goals will be ending the two bloodiest conflicts and human-rights nightmares in the world today -- the continuing genocide in Darfur and the unending carnage in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has cost at least 10 million lives over the past decade.
On these issues, Rice will find herself working closely with Gates at the Pentagon and the officers in AFRICOM -- the new Africa Command. But she may be stymied by the dramatically increased level of Chinese influence, financial support, diplomatic clout and direct military aid to the nations of Africa that did not exist when she ran African affairs at the State Department in the early 1990s.
Four-star Gen. James L. Jones, the former commander of the U.S. Marine Corps and former supreme allied commander Europe, is expected to be Obama's choice as national security adviser. He is likely to be far more cautious about advocating the use of U.S. armed forces around the world, including to alleviate appalling human-rights excesses such as in Darfur or Congo. And this may lead him into significant clashes with Clinton at State and Rice at the United Nations. But he looks likely to work well with Gates and his successor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Expect Adm. Michael Mullen, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs, to stay on in his post. As with Gates, he brings cautious, responsible pragmatism, widespread respect throughout the U.S. defense establishment and a crucial degree of institutional experience and continuity to his post. The Washington Post reported Monday that Obama has already met with Mullen and that the admiral was "very positive" about his impression of the president-elect.
Mullen brings another, almost entirely overlooked qualification to his post: He has established a strong working relationship with his opposite number in Moscow, Chief of the Russian General Staff four-star Gen. Nikolai Makarov. The two men met most recently in Helsinki on Oct. 21 in a largely successful effort to manage growing U.S.-Russian tensions following the Russian invasion of Georgia in the Caucasus in August.
Obama, Clinton and Gates see eye-to-eye on rebuilding U.S. relations with the Kremlin but also in trying to rein in Moscow from any new potentially aggressive moves. Mullen brings exactly the right mindset and recent experience to help them in those areas.
Obama's panel of anticipated selections for his top national security team therefore looks likely to elicit the same across-the-board responses of welcome and praise as his top economic appointments did, and for the same reasons: They will be seen as pragmatic, centrist and immensely experienced.
But this does not mean Obama has thrown his election campaign message of change overboard. It simply means he has chosen the most formidable team he can put together to make those changes successful. Whether he will succeed, given the complexities, dangers and unexpected surprises lurking ahead in a rapidly changing world, is another story.