Fineman: The Politics of Obama's Education Pick

Inez Moore Tenenbaum is a little slip of a lady, with porcelain skin and a smile as sweet as ice tea on a sunny Southern porch.

But looks are deceiving. She has a blowtorch will to win and more organizational drive than almost anyone else in her home state of South Carolina, where she served as a very successful—and very popular—elected superintendent of education from 1999 to 2007.

It was a lucky day for Barack Obama when, two years ago, Tenenbaum became the first major Democrat in South Carolina to endorse him for president. She was taking a big risk at the time.

She, as much as anyone else, insured that he won the South Carolina primary against the formidable Sen. Hillary Clinton—a victory that, as much as anything else, got him the party nomination.

When he climbed down off the stage on primary night in Columbia, the first person he embraced (after his wife, Michelle) was Tenenbaum.

If Obama owes anybody, he owes Inez. And she is worth owing, since her record as state superintendent of education is exemplary. Test scores rose well beyond national averages; she phased in full-day kindergarten; the state was widely praised for the rigor of its testing; teacher quality improved markedly; and she managed to impress teachers unions and reformers alike—a rare accomplishment.

So she would, not unreasonably, like Obama to nominate her to be U.S. secretary of education.

I could be wrong, but I'll be surprised if she gets it. The smarter money is on Obama's Harvard-educated, basketball playing friend, Arne Duncan, who runs the Chicago Public Schools; or perhaps Joel Klein, the lawyer-turned educator who is superintendent in New York City. There are other names, too, including Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond.

What do they have that Inez Moore Tenenbaum lacks? Well, they are big-city folks, for one; they have fancy university ties; they are nationally known. They are, in a word, national brand names—and Obama has shown a preference for brand names.

But what Tenenbaum has can't be measured by Ivy League degrees or big-city job titles. She has gumption, and a willingness to take risks.

If she isn't a national brand right now, she soon will be—but only if Obama rewards her with more than the hug he gave her on primary night.