The day after Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama last week, the Democratic nominee said he would be happy to take on the former Republican secretary of state as a senior adviser in an Obama White House.
“Whether he wants to take a formal role, whether that’s a good fit for him, that’s something we’d have to discuss,” Mr Obama said.
Speculating on who will take the plum roles in a forthcoming administration is the oldest Washington parlour game of all – and often the most futile. As the saying goes: “Those who don’t know, talk; and those who do know, don’t talk.”
Rightly or wrongly, almost no one is second-guessing members of a John McCain administration nowadays.
Intrade fuels speculation
Among the most disciplined politicians in the US, Mr Obama has taken pains to avoid giving the appearance that he is “measuring the [White House] drapes”.
But the Democratic nominee, whose chances of victory are now rated at 87 per cent by Intrade, the online betting site, has scattered enough hints to fuel plausible speculation.
Advisers to Mr Obama, who number 300 people on foreign policy alone, say that his advance transition team is the most comprehensive for any prospective president since Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Headed by John Podesta, who was Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff, the team has been working full pelt since the Democratic convention in August to prepare options for an incoming Obama administration.
But the financial meltdown in late September has transformed everybody’s calculations. Mr Obama has now put the goal of fixing the economy at the front and centre of all his planning.
The parlour game has thus shifted to focus on those who are in the running to be Mr Obama’s Treasury secretary. Among the most frequently cited names are Lawrence Summers, who was Mr Clinton’s last Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, who is chairman of the New York Fed, and even Paul Volcker, a former chairman of the Fed and a key Obama adviser.
Mr Volcker is 80 and, if he were appointed, it would be for the duration of the financial crisis only. Under that scenario, he might get a youthful deputy, such as Mr Geithner, who is 47.
“The advantage of Volcker is that he saw America through its last deep recession in the early 1980s – his presence would be very re- assuring to the markets,” said an Obama adviser who, like many others, gave warning that he was merely an “informed speculator”.
“But don’t rule out Larry Summers,” he added. “Obama values brains and expertise. Larry has more of both than anyone.”
Mr Obama has also promised that he would appoint at least one Republican to a senior post to give substance to his claim of being bipartisan. Most Obama advisers say that that Republican would probably be Bob Gates, the current defence secretary, whose moderate and professional management of the Pentagon has struck such a contrast to the reign of Donald Rumsfeld.
Mr Gates has indicated a reluctance to stay on in Washington, however. The most likely remaining Republicans include Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska senator, whose shared opposition to the Iraq war has brought him close to Mr Obama. Dick Lugar, a senator for Indiana, has also been mentioned as a possible secretary of state. But at 76, Mr Lugar might be too old for the strenuous job of repairing his country’s reputation in the world.
“You’ve got to clock up 400,000 air miles in that job,” said one Obama adviser.
Lone rangers or team players
Others vying for the role of chief diplomat include John Kerry, the losing 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, and Richard Holbrooke, who was Mr Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations.
But both these men are considered potential lone rangers. “Obama has made it very clear that he wants to take charge of foreign policy,” said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. “My guess is that he’ll want a team player.”
Possible “team players” include Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state, and John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defence under Mr Clinton, who is tipped as a possible Pentagon chief.
Jack Reid, Democratic senator for Rhode Island, is also cited, as is Richard Danzig, a former navy secretary and senior adviser to Mr Obama. “All of these positions would pivot on whether Bob Gates wants to stay on or not,” says another Obama aide. “If he doesn’t, then the field opens up more.”
The most frequent tip for national security adviser is Jim Steinberg, a former Clinton official, with Susan Rice as his likely deputy.
Ms Rice is very close to Mr Obama, having backed him from the start. “Susan would also be a very good person to head up a big new role for overseas development,” added the aide.