December 7, 2008


This Wasn't Quite the Change We Pictured (David Corn, December 7, 2008, Washington Post)

It's no surprise that many progressives are -- depending on whom you ask -- disappointed, irritated or fit to be tied. Sure, Obama's appointments do represent change -- that is, change from the widely unpopular Bush-Cheney status quo. But do these appointments amount to the kind of change that progressives, who were an essential part of Obama's political base during the campaign, can really believe in?

Perhaps Obama is trying to pull off something subtle -- a sort of stealth liberalism draped in bipartisan centrism. But it's understandable that progressives are worried. "I feel incredibly frustrated," OpenLeft blogger Chris Bowers exclaimed. "Even after two landslide elections in a row, are our only governing options as a nation either all right-wing Republicans, or a centrist mixture of Democrats and Republicans? Isn't there ever a point when we can get an actual Democratic administration?" And he asks, "Why isn't there a single member of Obama's cabinet who will be advising him from the left?" Writers at the Nation have decried Obama's national security team as a "kettle of hawks," denounced his economic aides as acolytes of "recycled Clintonism" who fancy "straight-up neoliberal deference to the market," and assailed the retaining of Gates as a move that "has a dispiriting, stay-the-course feel to it."

The other day, two prominent labor officials who toiled mighty hard for Obama during the campaign told me they had this message for the new president: Please, please give us David Bonior as labor secretary. They were referring to the populist former House member who has been a leading critic of NAFTA-like trade pacts. "Don't we deserve at least one Cabinet appointment?" one remarked.

I, too, have huffed about Obama's staffing decisions. It remains a mystery to me why Obama would want to bring into his Big Tent the Clinton circus, which frequently features excessive spin, backstabbing, leaking and messy melodrama. Sen. Clinton is a smart woman who has stature and globetrotting experience. But as health-care czar in her husband's administration, she set back that cause, which is near and dear to the hearts of progressives, by nearly two decades.

Also unsettling is Obama's decision to re-up Gates at the Pentagon. Gates is certainly an improvement on his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld. He's no ideologue. And by placing a Bush appointee who happens to be pragmatic in charge of withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, Obama might avoid a bruising political wrangle over his Iraq policy. But on Gates's watch, there has been little, if any, progress in Afghanistan. And Gates has not truly taken on the Pentagon's biggest domestic problem: its bloated, out-of-control budget. Obama transition team officials reviewing the Defense Department have told colleagues that they are stunned by the mess they are finding. With the military budget expanding wildly, largely because of hundreds of billions of dollars in cost overruns for questionable weapons programs, the Pentagon is the federal agency most in need of change. That change has to be driven from the top.

As for Summers, he blew one of the more significant policy calls of the 1990s. When regulators wanted to rein in the use of derivatives, he let the free market rule. Now he's being rewarded in an it-takes-a-thief-to-catch-a-thief manner. And the fierce partisan who will be managing the White House for Obama, future chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, was known during the Clinton years as the White House aide who said no to bolder, progressive policy initiatives in favor of modest, centrist proposals.

So with these hawkish, Rubin-esque, middle-of-the-road picks, has Obama abandoned the folks who brought him to the dance? that voters bring you to the dance, not activists.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 7, 2008 3:42 PM
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