President Obama has made a choice to lead the Department of the Interior that is either inspired or risky, or, very possibly, both.
In nominating businesswoman Sally Jewell to lead the department, Obama has selected someone who knows how to run a large organization but who has never held a political office. More to the point, she is a former oil engineer and commercial banker who is an avid outdoorswoman and who may be able to pull together a consensus on the sometimes contradictory goals of protecting public lands while allowing responsible drilling and mining.
While many senators, who must approve her nomination, are cautiously optimistic about the choice, some harbor doubts over her lack of political experience. And, indeed, it’s not a small thing. She will be jumping into the deep end.
But that is no automatic disqualifier. Presidents have frequently reached into the financial industry to find their nominees for secretary of the Treasury, some with little political background. The bigger question is whether the nominee has the training and temperament to succeed in a high-pressure position and, in that regard, Jewell seems to be a reasonable choice.
Jewell heads the commercial co-op Recreational Equipment Inc. REI sells outdoor recreational gear, sporting goods and clothing, and she is known for taking on outdoor challenges, including repeatedly hiking Mount Rainier in the state of Washington, where she lives. She was a commercial banker for 19 years and also an oil company worker in Colorado and Oklahoma.
“She knows the link between conservation and good jobs,” President Obama said in nominating her. “She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress; that, in fact, those two things need to go hand in hand.”
Her breadth of experience and interests offer no guarantee of success, of course, but neither does nominating a senator or congressman. She would bring more management experience to the job than most nominees from the political world.
It says something notable that a Republican predecessor praised her nomination. Former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who served under President George W. Bush, described her as “effective and time-tested on taking a variety of issues, deciphering them, determining what is the most important and making a decision.” Those sound like fine qualities for someone overseeing a vast department that is influential in the daily lives of Americans.
Jewell’s nomination is subject to Senate approval and members should look carefully at her resume and her ideas on balancing issues of drilling and mining with the protection of public lands. As intriguing and even promising as her nomination is, she is for most Americans an unknown quantity. The Senate should proceed carefully but with an open mind.