The Brilliant Brain Trust

Here's a radical suggestion: Barack Obama should pick the smartest people he can find for his cabinet. Brilliance has sometimes been a criterion in presidential appointments, of course, but seldom the major one. It usually takes a back seat to rewarding supporters, playing congressional politics, seeking diversity and appeasing interest groups. Presidents always place a high premium on personal loyalty.

Obama can't avoid such considerations. But it makes sense for him to give greater weight to intellectual acumen and subject-specific knowledge than his recent predecessors have, both because of the depth of the problems he faces and because of his own style as a thinker and a decision maker. Bush, whose ego was threatened by any outburst of excellence in his vicinity, politicized all policy and centralized it in the White House. Obama is intellectually confident, enjoys engaging with ideas and inclines to pragmatism rather than partisanship. He can handle a Lincolnesque team of rivals or a FDR-style brain trust. And he's going to need one.

The issue starts at the Treasury Department, where the best choice would be Lawrence Summers, who held the post in the Clinton administration. Summers is the outstanding international economist of his generation. I happened to run into him at a dinner in New York a couple of days after Lehman Brothers collapsed. Summers analyzed the situation, which he said had suddenly become far more dangerous, with a clarity I haven't heard from anyone else since. He explained that it was simultaneously a crisis of liquidity, solvency and confidence—and that the government would ultimately have to inject capital into financial institutions and not just buy up distressed assets. It took Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson another three weeks, a defeat in Congress and a jump-start from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to find his way to a similar conclusion.

Summers can also be arrogant and politically incorrect. He sometimes does a poor job hiding his contempt for lesser intellects, and he loves to play the provocateur. But these are the defects of a superior mind and a small price to pay for getting the person most likely to maximize our chances of avoiding a global depression. To say that Summers is the best person for the job of Treasury secretary is no knock on others mentioned, including New York Federal Reserve president Timothy Geithner and New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine. But if chosen, the first thing either of them would do is call Summers for advice.

It's a similar story at State, where the Great Mentioner has dropped a number of plausible names, including Hillary Clinton and John Kerry. Both would be good choices, if it didn't mean passing over the person they both get their best foreign-policy advice from, Richard Holbrooke. Holbrooke dominates the field like no one else on the Democratic side. He has a supple mind, understands all the issues, knows the leaders and has a proven record as a diplomat and peacemaker. At Dayton, Holbrooke singlehandedly ended the war in Bosnia by sheer force of personality.

Holbrooke has some personal defects, too. He is legendary for his ambition and self-promotion. To say he rubs some people the wrong way puts it mildly—he's a handful. He also backed Clinton in the primaries. But as with Summers, Holbrooke's flaws hardly rate in the context of the need to rebuild relationships, manage complex security threats and develop a tough-minded liberal vision of America's role in the world.

The genius principle should also be applied to the lesser agencies, where many of the names being trotted out have a dreary, box-checking quality to them. Obama says transitioning to renewable fuel sources is his second-highest priority after saving the economy. So why not talk the brilliant, socially awkward Al Gore into taking the job of energy secretary? Following the anonymous Samuel W. Bodman might seem like a demotion for the former vice president and Nobel Prize winner, but it would give Gore a chance to accomplish his life's mission by addressing climate change—and make up for his neglect of the issue when he was vice president. For education, he might choose Joel Klein, the chancellor of the New York City school system. Klein has not gone through life making friends, but has shown himself an unusually shrewd and committed thinker about educational management and reform. (Better yet, what about getting Bill Gates to tackle the problem?)

Among the intangible tasks Obama faces is vanquishing the anti-intellectualism of the past eight years, the prejudice that serious policy discussion is too effete for the cabinet room or the Oval Office. If he really wants to bring change to Washington, the new president can start by putting a sign in his window: NO HACKS NEED APPLY.