Presidential Pooch Pick Offers Peek Into Policy: Caroline Baum

Commentary by Caroline Baum

Nov. 17 (Bloomberg) — A man is judged by the company he keeps, and no more so than when he’s the newly elected president of the United States.

America is waiting with bated breath for Barack Obama to announce his nominations for key cabinet posts. His choices will reflect everything from how he plans to govern (from the center or from the left) to what he sees as the proper role for government in the economy to how he intends to improve America’s standing in the international community to his priorities on health care and education.

For my money, I’d ignore the appointments for the top jobs at Treasury, State and the Pentagon and keep an eye on the First Pup.

In his victory speech on Nov. 4, Obama told his daughters, Sasha and Malia, they had “earned the new puppy that’s coming with us to the White House.”

Ten-year-old Malia suffers from dog allergies, so the field of possible breeds is limited. With those constraints in mind, here is a layman’s guide for interpreting the Obama family’s pooch pick and translating it into public policy.

1. Rescue or Buy

The first hurdle for the Obama administration is the choice between adopting a dog from a shelter and buying one from a breeder. (Full disclosure: I have a breeder-bought standard dachshund and two adopted greyhounds and am indifferent on canine sourcing.)

How Obama finesses this issue will be an indication of his intentions toward Detroit’s automakers. Congressional Democrats won’t allow these old dogs, who can’t seem to learn new tricks, to be put to sleep. So the new administration will have to choose between throwing car companies a lifeline (again) and nationalizing them, dumping the management, wiping out the shareholders and putting them into a receivership until they can be restructured and sold.

The puppy pick will tell which one it will be.

On a personal level, the easiest way for Obama to shed the label of elitist is to get a pound dog. Someone who spends $21 for a haircut can’t fork out $2,500 for a dog whose monthly grooming costs exceed his own and expect to be seen as an ordinary Joe. Bow-wow.

2. Purebred or Mixed Breed

Malia is reportedly interested in a goldendoodle, a cross between a golden retriever and a poodle. “A lot of shelter dogs are mutts like me,” Obama said at his first post-election press conference, referring to his mixed-race heritage.

If the president-elect goes with the doodle, there’s a good chance we’ll see a cabinet that looks like America.

Not just black and white, male and female, straight and gay. The selection of a mutt over a purebred is a sure sign Obama is looking to reach across party lines, become the first post- partisan president and appoint a cabinet that looks like the dog pound.

3. Froufrou or Butch

When potential dog owners learn that someone in the family is allergic, they either scrap the idea (“What’s the matter with a turtle?”) or make a beeline for the poodle or poodle mixes, which produce less allergen (they shed their skins less frequently) than other breeds.

Wrong choice for a president looking to “walk softly and carry a big stick” when it comes to foreign policy, says Bob Barbera, chief economist at ITG Inc., a New York brokerage.

Obama could put Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and anyone else with nuclear ambitions on notice by selecting a Portuguese water dog, says Barbera, owner of two: the recently departed Zico and six-year-old Juno.

“Dog trainers like to joke that Portuguese water dogs are Rottweilers in poodles’ clothing,” he says.

The breed belongs to the group of working dogs, “bred to perform such jobs as guarding property, pulling sleds and performing water rescues,” according to the American Kennel Club.

Talk about killing two birds with one dog! Obama can put to rest accusations he’s soft on defense and demonstrate a work ethic for teen slackers.

4. Universal Health Care or Status-Quo Mess

Obama ran for president on a platform of universal, more affordable health care.

What about pets? Do they qualify as Americans?

Pet owners certainly consider canines to be family members. Anyone who’s had a critically ill dog knows the bills can run into the thousands of dollars for a brief veterinary hospital stay.

Watch to see if Obama buys pet insurance for Fido and how he deals with the company’s exclusions for pre-existing conditions (yes, even in pet health-care policies). Any major policy address on universal health care for all pets is a tip-off this administration will push its Homo sapien agenda, too.

5. Positive-Reinforcement or Tough-Love

No doubt the Obamas will want to enroll Fido in obedience classes once the puppy is housebroken. After all, the White House is an extended-stay rental, not a permanent home. The last thing its exclusive tenants want is a puppy chewing the corners of the H.M.S. Resolute, the presidential desk occupied by both Roosevelts, Reagan and Bush, or lifting his leg on the scroll- armed sofa in the Red Room.

There are essentially two schools of thought when it comes to dog training: positive-reinforcement (treats for everything good) and tough-love (“I’m the alpha, you’re the dog”).

Obama says his administration supports expanded charter- school funding to states that have high accountability standards. That will put him at odds with the teachers’ union, which prefers pay-for-seniority to pay-for-performance.

Taking a tough-love stance with the puppy is a sure sign Obama is going to raise the bar and demand performance from the nation’s public schools.

Obama won’t be sworn into office until Jan. 20, but that’s no reason to keep the First Daughters waiting for their promised pup. Not to mention the rest of us, who understand that from those paw prints come policy prescriptions.

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