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This Wasn't Quite the Change We Pictured
There's no telling whether this model will work. But these days, Obama's cooption-by-change strategy has a better chance than it might otherwise -- simply because the center has shifted to the left.
During the Bush years, progressives called for ending the Iraq war, closing the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, disavowing torture, restoring the United States' image abroad, redressing global warming and placing diplomatic multilateralism ahead of unilateral militarism. Those are now consensus positions, and Obama's national security aides should have little trouble embracing them. Similarly, liberals have urged ending Bush's tax cuts for the wealthy, advocated economic investments (such as pump-priming spending on infrastructure) and proposed tighter regulations on free-wheeling high-finance villains. Obama's economic aides ought to be able to get with much of this program.
Still, there will be clashes. Trade continues to divide the Democrats; progressives are right to fret that Obama's economic squad leans too much to the NAFTA side. And how far will onetime fans of deregulation go in re-regulating Wall Street? Are Obama's national security aides, including those centrist Democratic policy wonks expected to fill Pentagon slots beneath Gates, willing to confront the military establishment over its budget or to take up the progressive cause of drastically reducing nuclear stockpiles? As of yet, there are no high-profile liberal champions in Obama-land who can lead the charge on these fronts.
For some progressives, Obama's opening moves may not feel like the change they anticipated. But there's no rebellion yet at hand. Many are probably holding their breath and waiting to see whether Obama can hijack the establishment for progressive ends.
And I'm not yet reaching for a pitchfork. During the primary and general campaign, Obama and his team demonstrated that they possess plenty of strategic and tactical smarts. Perhaps they can show the same when it comes to governing. For the moment, the watchword for progressives ought to be a version of an old Reagan trope: hope, but verify.
That doesn't mean Obama deserves a pass for (so far) bypassing progressives. When he announced his foreign policy advisers last week, he declared that he was a "strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions" and wanted "a vigorous debate inside the White House." But he has largely left liberals out of the debate. If strong progressive voices are not included in Obama's wild and woolly free-for-alls at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., they will have little choice but to find outlets on the outside (remember the Internet?) -- and become their own agents of change.
David Corn is Washington bureau chief of Mother Jones magazine.