Dan Schnur is the Director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. He served as national communications director for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign.
Both Barack Obama and John McCain sounded all the right notes last night, sending a strong message to their respective groups of supporters of the need to put the election behind them. Now it gets harder.
McCain returns to the Senate, where he will begin writing the last chapter of his long career in politics and public service. Despite the understandable temptation to either run out the clock on his current term without significant engagement or to lead the opposition against the new president after a very bitter campaign, I'm willing to take McCain at his word and assume that he will continue the approach that has characterized his time in the Senate. In the past, he's worked effectively across party lines on issues like judicial appointments, political reform, global warming and immigration. It's a good guess that he and Obama can find common ground on energy, economic, and national security issues as well.
For President Obama, personnel is destiny, so the most important early indicators as to whether he will govern from the center or veer leftward will be the men and women with whom he surrounds himself. Not that I get any say in the matter, but naming Illinois congressman Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff would be a critical signal as to his intentions to resist the pull of the enlarged, empowered, and impatient Democratic majorities in Congress. Emmanuel, who served on Bill Clinton's White House staff when Clinton ran into similar difficulties during his first two years in office, is the one member of the Democratic congressional leadership who understands the perils of over-reaching. Just as important, he is tough as nails and capable of pushing back hard at his former colleagues who would try to yank the new president further away from the center.
One other appointment that will not receive nearly as much attention will be President Obama's Secretary of Education. As a candidate, Obama outlined four primary public policy challenges: economic growth, energy, health care, and education. On the first three, he will be able to blur the lines between traditional Democratic orthodoxy and more forward-looking remedies. On the fourth, the options are clearer. He will have to choose whether to cede this policy turf to the teachers unions and their allies or expend necessary political capital to implement a more aggressive reform agenda. Local leaders and innovators like New York City School Chancellor Joel Klein, Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan, or DC Schools chief Michelle Rhee might not attract the headlines of the people Obama selects for Defense, Treasury, and other higher-profile posts. But it will give us crucial guidance as to his broader approach to governing.