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Dissenting Voices Make An Administration Stronger

Written by Tom

In 2005, Barack Obama and I were getting into an elevator in Chicago with a few of his Senate staffers.  Looking around at the different faces surrounding him, Obama remarked, “I love that my staff looks like a Benetton ad.”

When it came time to put together his administration, Obama understood the value of diversity – not just gender, racial, or sexual orientation – but also a diversity of experiences and viewpoints.  He instructed his transition team to seek out the best talent from the private sector, state and local government, philanthropy, and non-profit groups.  

Obama understood intuitively that if you want to address the myriad challenges that confront government, you need to have a diverse set of voices and perspectives around the table.  It’s especially critical to have voices that are willing to express disagreement with leadership, whether it’s a cabinet member or the president.

Donald Trump has taken a different tack.  

Judging from the wall of white men who appear with him at events not held at the Museum of African American History, it’s highly unlikely that the current administration will ever match the diversity of the Obama administration.  But if Trump is serious about achieving policy successes, and not repeating the failures of his first month, he would be smart to broaden the pool of political appointees to represent a range of American experiences – even if that comes with the discomfort of hearing more dissenting voices.

According to press accounts, the Trump White House is vetoing candidates for senior agency slots because the proposed pick either was not sufficiently supportive of Trump during the campaign or had been critical of him.  Most notably, Elliott Abrams was nixed for the number two spot at State because of “Donald Trump’s thin skin and nothing else.” Apparently, personnel recommendations at departments like Education, Treasury, and HUD have been rejected for similar reasons.

The Trump White House is well within its prerogative to prioritize the hiring of people who have demonstrated long-term support to the president.  But if government is to solve complex problems, the previous loyalty of potential candidates can’t be the only factor in whether they are selected for a position.

In the Obama administration, we certainly considered whether someone was an early supporter.  But we also looked at whether they had a passion to serve, whether they had the right experience and skills, and how they would fit into a team.  There was no litmus test of blind loyalty.

To be sure, not everyone made the cut for jobs in the Obama administration. But if a Republican wanted to serve, we welcomed them even if they had supported John McCain.  And we especially embraced Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton during the fierce primary contest.

Given Trump’s outsider campaign, he is already handicapped by a West Wing staff “light on governing experience.”  His personnel team also has been slow out of the gate in announcing nominations, so many agencies find themselves with no leadership and with no reinforcements on the horizon.

If Trump is unwilling to widen the circle of potential appointees, he will be relying on a team that, while loyal, is not likely to challenge his worldview and is far too small to run the federal government.  This might be a perfectly acceptable way to run a family business, but the failed rollout of the travel ban demonstrates why dissenting voices are needed.  And when it comes to solving complicated issues like health care and tax reform, Trump will need to hear a variety of perspectives, including from experts who have challenged him in the past.

Some of Trump’s sharpest critics during the campaign were veterans of previous Republican administrations.  And, while Trump is intent on breaking with what he considers to be the failed policies of the past, he will soon learn that experience matters when it comes to navigating government bureaucracies and managing the crises that inevitably arise.

For many of these critics, the tumultuous first month of this administration has not softened their opposition to Donald Trump.  But if they do have a change of heart and are willing to serve their country, the president would be well-served to welcome them into the fold.  It would certainly go a long way towards making his administration run more like a “fine-tuned machine.”

Chris Lu is a Senior Fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center.  He served in the Obama Administration as White House Cabinet Secretary and Deputy Secretary of Labor.  You can follow him at @ChrisLu44.

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