Following in the wake of last week's Mumbai terrorist attacks, President-elect Barack Obama announced his national security team at a press conference this morning in Chicago. With unrest between India and Pakistan rising over the weekend, Obama addressed the situation briefly but declined to comment further when pressed by a reporter.
"This is one of those times that I reiterate that there is one president at a time," the president-elect said. "We will be engaged in delicate diplomacy in the next several days and weeks. It would be inappropriate for me to comment, but what I can so unequivocally is that both myself and the team that stands beside me are absolutely committed to eliminating the threat of terrorism."
That team includes several appointments that had been rumored for weeks -- Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of State, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Eric Holder as attorney general, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as Homeland Security Department secretary, Obama's campaign foreign policy adviser Susan Rice as ambassador to the United Nations and Gen. Jim Jones as national security adviser.
After announcing Clinton as his secretary of State, Obama was asked about "belittling" her international experience while on the campaign trial. "This is fun for the press to try to stir up whatever quotes were formed over the course of the campaign," Obama quipped in response. "If you look at statements that [Clinton] and I have made outside of the heat of the campaign, we share a view that America has to be safe and secure." He added that in making his decision, he never experienced a "light bulb moment"; rather, once their primary battle was over, he started thinking of ways they could work together.
During her turn at the microphone, Clinton said it was a difficult decision leaving her Senate post but that the international challenges facing the country -- from Iraq to the recent attacks in India to climate change -- compelled her to accept this role. "I am proud to join you Mr. President-elect," Clinton said, turning to Obama, "in what will be a difficult, exciting adventure."
Obama stressed bipartisanship throughout the conference. When probed by a reporter about whether Gates qualified as a Republican cabinet member, Obama smirked and said that he didn't check Gates' voter registration prior to asking him to stay. "We have to recall that when it comes to keeping our nation and people safe, we are not Republicans or Democrats," he said. "We are Americans."
Obama also sought to rebuff the notion that his newly appointed "team of rivals" could ultimately end up as a "team of clashes." "I assembled this team because I am a strong believer in strong personalities and opinions," he said. "That's when the best decisions are made." He said he wants to avoid "groupthink" in the White House -- when everyone agrees with everything and no vigorous debate occurs. "But understand that I will be setting policies as president," Obama stressed.
In selecting Napolitano as DHS secretary, Obama acknowledged (and Napolitano reiterated) that the department is comprised of myriad agencies that will inevitably require some sort of reform: "She will be a leader who can reform a sprawling department while safeguarding our homeland." Napolitano also stressed several times in accepting the position that change must be accomplished "across a spectrum of government agencies" in order to ensure the country remains safe.
One key national security appointment missing from today's conference was CIA director. Obama's team was planning on picking 25-year CIA veteran and Obama intelligence adviser John Brennan for the position after liberal portions of the Democratic Party -- not to mention a slew of liberal bloggers -- protested over Brennan's association with Bush's harsh interrogation techniques. Brennan formally withdrew his name from consideration last week. Officials now say that the president-elect is still evaluating candidates for the role.
Vice President-elect Joe Biden, a foreign policy and national security buff himself, also spoke at the conference, making this his first time speaking at an Obama presser since the election.
Biden cautioned about the threats that will continue to face the new administration but said he is still "optimistic" about the newly appointed positions. "We've brought together one of the most talented national security teams ever assembled," Biden said.