This Wasn't Quite the Change We Pictured

By David Corn
Sunday, December 7, 2008

The more things change, the more they stay . . . well, you know. And looking at President-elect Barack Obama's top appointments, it's easy to wonder whether convention has triumphed over change -- and centrists over progressives.

A quick run-down: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who supported the Iraq war until she initiated her presidential bid, has been handed the Cabinet's big plum: secretary of state. And Bush's second defense secretary, Robert Gates, will become Obama's first defense secretary. The Obama foreign policy adviser regarded as the most liberal in his inner circle, Susan E. Rice, has been picked for the U.N. ambassador slot. Obama is elevating this job to Cabinet rank, but he's still sending Rice to New York -- and in politics and policy, proximity to power matters. For national security adviser, Obama has picked James L. Jones. The retired four-star general was not hawkish on the Iraq war and seems to be a non-ideologue who possesses the right experience for the job. But he probably would have ended up in a McCain administration, and his selection has not heartened progressives.

Obama's economic team isn't particularly liberal, either. Lawrence H. Summers, who as President Bill Clinton's Treasury secretary opposed regulating the new-fangled financial instruments that greased the way to the subprime meltdown, will chair Obama's National Economic Council. To head Treasury, Obama has tapped Timothy F. Geithner, the president of the New York Federal Reserve, who helped oversee the financial system as it collapsed. Each is close to Robert Rubin, another former Clinton Treasury secretary, a director of bailed-out Citigroup and a poster boy for both the corporate wing of the Democratic Party and discredited Big Finance. Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board will be guided by Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman whose controversial tight-money policies ended the stagflation crisis of the 1970s but led to a nasty recession. (A genuinely progressive economist, Jared Bernstein, will receive a less prominent White House job: chief economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden.)

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?

My hunch is that Obama has made a calculation. In constructing his administration, he has decided not to create a (liberal) Washington counter-establishment. Instead, he's fashioning a bipartisan, centrist-loaded version of the Washington establishment to carry out his policies, which do tilt to the left. (And good news for the establishmentarians: Having screwed up on Iraq or the economy is no disqualification.) When asked at a Nov. 26 news conference whether his appointments of old Washington hands indicated that his administration was not going to be a festival of change, Obama replied, "What we are going to do is combine experience with fresh thinking. But understand where the -- the vision for change comes from first and foremost. It comes from me." His job, he added, was to "make sure . . . that my team is implementing" his policies. In other words, la change, c'est moi.

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.

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