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Barack Obama lines up a cabinet of stars as John McCain struggles on

The Democrat may recruit some big names, including Republicans, to see America through the crisis

Sarah Baxter in Roanoke, Virginia

With the economy on the brink of recession and the country in the midst of two foreign wars, Barack Obama is considering appointing a cabinet of stars to steer America through potentially its worst crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s if he wins the presidency on November 4.

Obama has a well-regarded, close-knit team of domestic and foreign policy advisers who would follow him into the White House and key administration posts. But he is also being urged to make some high-profile appointments who would command the confidence of the country at such a troubled time.

“It’s important to send a signal,” an Obama adviser said. “With a comparatively new person in office and the awful mess we’re in, these appointments are going to resonate around the world.” Obama, 47, has been warning his supporters that the election is not over yet. “Don’t underestimate our ability to screw it up,” he said last week. But should Obama win, he will not be short of big names to choose for his administration.

A host of well-known figures, including some Republicans, have indicated they would be willing to serve in some capacity as Obama begins to acquire a winner’s glow. From Senator John Kerry, the 2004 presidential candidate with hopes of becoming secretary of state, to Larry Summers, a former US Treasury secretary under President Bill Clinton, and Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator who has been tipped as defence secretary, there are plenty who have signalled their availability.

Obama is thought likely to cherry-pick a few high-profile names, while rewarding the loyalty and discretion of advisers such as his foreign policy expert Susan Rice who have served him so well throughout the campaign.

“He has no patience whatsoever with prima donnas,” said one leading Democrat policy adviser. “He’s surrounded himself with people who are pretty smooth in dealing with each other.” All eyes were on Colin Powell, the former secretary of state under President George W Bush, to see if he would declare his support for Obama in an interview on Meet the Press, the flagship political television programme, today.

Powell is unlikely to return to the cabinet after the mauling he received over the Iraq war, but could serve as a special envoy abroad. He is regularly consulted by Obama on foreign policy and military matters, and said last year: “I always keep my eyes open and my ears open to requests for service.”

In last week’s debate against John McCain, his Republican opponent, Obama indicated that he would adopt a bipartisan approach to government, citing the Republican senator Richard Lugar, who worked with him on a bill to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation, and General Jim Jones, the former Nato commander, as figures he admired.

“Those are the people, Democrat and Republican, who have shaped my ideas and who will be surrounding me in the White House,” Obama said.

If the Democrats win sweeping majorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate as well as the White House, conservative voters could feel alienated from every branch of government. The McCain campaign is already playing up fears of a Democratic landslide to persuade Republicans and independents to back their man.

An editorial in The Wall Street Journal last week warned of a coming “liberal super-majority”. It is possible Democrats could win a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate, enabling them to pass whatever legislation they wanted, from higher taxes to greater union rights.

“Though we doubt most Americans realise it, this would be one of the most profound political and ideological shifts in US history. Liberals would dominate the entire government in a way they haven’t since 1965 or 1933,” the newspaper commented.

William Galston, a former White House policy adviser under Bill Clinton, said: “I don’t think Obama is going to give Republicans much on substance, so he would be well advised to give them some satisfaction on personnel.”

Some leading supporters, such as Kerry, may end up disappointed, even though he launched the then unknown Illinois politician’s career at the 2004 Democratic national convention. “Frankly, how many senators do you want in the cabinet?” wondered one Obama adviser. If he wins the presidency, Obama has to beware of countering his message of “change” on the campaign stump by appointing too many Washington insiders.

Republicans hope the wall-to-wall coverage of the attack by the baldheaded Sam “Joe the plumber” Wurzelbacher on Obama’s plans to increase taxes for those earning more than $250,000 a year has halted the Democrat’s momentum. Some polls have tightened in favour of McCain, 72, but Obama retains an average lead of nearly seven points.

David Plouffe, Obama’s coolly efficient campaign manager, believes his candidate is disproportionately strong in former Republican strongholds such as Virginia and Colorado. This could give Obama enough electoral college votes to push him past the winner’s post, even if he loses the traditional battle-ground states of Florida and Ohio to McCain. The polls suggest that Obama leads by eight points in Virginia, a state that George W Bush won by the same margin in 2004.

In a show of confidence that rattled Republicans, Obama travelled on Friday to Roanoke on the edge of the Appalachian mountains in southwestern Virginia in search of the white, working-class voters who eluded him in the primary campaign against Hillary Clinton.

McCain, in contrast, was fighting a rearguard, defensive action in the northern tip of the state yesterday to shore up his support among the high-tech, white-collar, suburban voters who have been deserting his party.

The youth vote and black vote have been mobilised to an unprecedented degree by the Obama campaign, which has raised $454m – nearly double McCain’s $230m – enabling it to spend on saturation advertising and organisation in areas that were once thought to be unwinnable. It is expected to announce a record-breaking haul of more than $100m in September.

The Democratic voter registration effort has reached far and wide. Althea Patterson, 40, an African-American insurance worker from Roanoke, said: “I’ve got friends who went out and got their criminal records expunged so they could vote for Obama.” Former felons are barred from voting without a judge’s dispensation.

Senator Jim Webb, the Virginia Democrat and former marine who served as navy secretary in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, personally vouched for Obama’s integrity. “You can trust me and I trust him,” he told the rally in Roanoke. He cited the refrain from a country and western song to disparage McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as a running mate: “I know what I was doing but what was I thinking?”

With little more than two weeks until polling day, some leading Republicans suspect McCain is doomed. Peter Wehner, a senior White House official under Bush, said: “The Obama campaign is terrific. They’ve got boatloads of money and they’re using it well. I don’t think the race is over, but I always thought Obama would win. I’m a realist and I can read the polls and the electoral map as well as the next guy.” A persistent question for Obama is how to make the most of Hillary Clinton’s talents in government after she has helped to swing women and blue-collar workers behind him. Last week the New York senator put her chances of running again for president at “probably close to zero”, leaving just a little wiggle room in case Obama loses in a fortnight’s time and there is a vacancy.

Clinton added: “There’s an old saying: bloom where you’re planted.” In the event of an Obama victory, she hopes to inherit the mantle of lion of the Senate from Edward Kennedy and steer universal healthcare legislation through Congress.

However, members of Obama’s inner circle believe she would be tempted to accept an offer to become health secretary, which would give her the historic opportunity to devise and implement the policy. “That’s very possible. Senator Clinton would be terrific as health secretary,” said Congressman Patrick Murphy, a leading Obama supporter.

Sorting out the economy is going to be the biggest test of Obama’s presidency. “He’s got to do something bold and a lot of it will be psychological,” one of his advisers said. One of the names in the frame for Treasury secretary is Paul Volcker, the chairman of the Federal Reserve under President Ronald Reagan, who brought inflation under control in the early 1980s.

Admirers admit his age is against him – Volcker is 81 – but suggest he could oversee a financial rescue package before passing on the baton. Glenn Hubbard, the former head of the Council of Economic Advisers under Bush, said: “I can’t think of anyone else with the same stature.”

Volcker endorsed Obama back in January when Clinton was still the Democratic front-runner. “He would provide the confidence necessary to stabilise the markets and put together an economic plan to get the country moving again,” an Obama adviser said. “This is the man who solved the last economic crisis.”

Another leading candidate for the Treasury is Summers, who has been guiding Obama through the Wall Street melt-down. Summers was forced to quit as president of Harvard University in 2006 after suggesting controversially that men had a greater aptitude for science and engineering than women.

At a conference at Harvard Business School last week, Summers defended Obama’s plans to tax the wealthy by pointing to the huge rise in inequality over the past 30 years between the earnings of the top 1% and bottom 80% of the country. “It is immense compared to any discussion of changing the tax system here or there,” he said.

Obama may also want to reward Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of President John F Kennedy, for overseeing his vice-presidential selection and bringing the coveted family name to his campaign. She has been variously tipped as ambassador to the United Nations, the Vatican and even Britain – her grandfather Joseph Kennedy was sent packing from the same job in 1940 after saying democracy was finished. However, she may wish to remain in America and build on her experience as an education reformer in New York.

As Obama ponders his choice of cabinet, he may recall that there is a precedent for appointing well-established “stars” to shore up a relatively inexperienced president. George W Bush brought the powerful triumvirate of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Powell into his cabinet – and all were heavily criticised for their performance.

Wehner has learnt from experience inside the White House that voters can soon tire of distinguished names if they are unhappy with the results. “There will be a lot of talk about bipartisanship and a honeymoon period, but that will disappear if the economy is stagnating or gets worse,” he said. “The public is very pragmatic and will make its judgment on results rather than optics. The acid test is how the country is doing.”

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