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Closet Centrist

In Obama's Cabinet, the Audacity of Moderation

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008; Page A17

It is a lineup generous in its moderation, astonishing for its continuity, startling for its stability.

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A defense secretary, Robert Gates, who once headed the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M. A secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who supported the invasion of Iraq, voted to label the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization and called direct, unconditional talks with Iran "irresponsible and frankly naive." A national security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones, most recently employed at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who served as a special adviser to the Bush administration on the Middle East. A Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, who is one of Henry Paulson's closest allies outside the administration. A head of the Council of Economic Advisers, Christina Romer, whose writings and research seem to favor low tax rates, stable money and free trade.

It is tempting for conservatives to crow -- or liberals to lament -- that Barack Obama's victory has somehow produced John McCain's administration. But this partisan reaction trivializes some developments that, while early and tentative, are significant.

First, these appointments add evidence to a debate about the political character of the president-elect himself. Conservatives have generally feared that Obama is a closet radical. He has uniformly voted with liberal interests and done nothing to justify a reputation for centrism.

Until now. Obama's appointments reveal not just moderation but maturity -- magnanimity to past opponents, a concern for continuity in a time of war and economic crisis, a self-confidence that allows him to fill gaps in his own experience with outsize personalities, and a serious commitment to incarnate his rhetoric of unity.

All the normal caveats apply. It is still early. Obama is benefiting from being the only player on the stage -- all his pretensions of moderation could be quickly undermined by a liberal Congress, unhinged by its expanded majority. And Obama's social liberalism could still turn Washington into a culture-war battlefield.

But honesty requires this recognition: So far, Barack Obama shows the instincts and ambitions of a large political figure.

Second, Obama's appointments reveal something important about current Bush policies. Though Obama's campaign savaged the administration as incompetent and radical, Obama's personnel decisions have effectively ratified Bush's defense and economic approaches during the past few years. At the Pentagon, Obama rehired the architects of President Bush's current military strategy -- Gates, Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno. At the Treasury Department, Obama has hired one of the main architects of Bush's current economic approach.

This continuity does not make Obama an ideological traitor. It indicates that Bush has been pursuing centrist, bipartisan policies -- without getting much bipartisan support. The transition between Bush and Obama is smoother than some expected, not merely because Obama has moderate instincts but because Bush does as well. Particularly on the economy, Bush has never been a libertarian; he has always matched a commitment to free markets with a willingness to intervene when markets stumble.

The candidate of "change" is discovering what many presidents before him have found: On numerous issues, the range of responsible policy options is narrow. And the closer you come to the Oval Office, the wiser your predecessors appear.

Third, Obama is finding the limits of leading a "movement" that never had much ideological content.

His transition has seen the return of a pack of Clintonistas -- Lawrence Summers, Eric Holder, Rahm Emanuel -- prompting talk of Bill Clinton's third term. Some of this is unavoidable. Governing experience generally gathers in the stagnant pools of past administrations.

But the resurrection of Clintonism is more pronounced because Obamaism is so wispy and indistinct. Obama brings no cadre of passionate reformers with him to Washington -- no ideological vision cultivated in think tanks for decades. Instead, he has turned to experience and competence in his appointments -- which often means returning to the Clinton era. Experience is vital, especially in avoiding rookie mistakes. But, strange as it sounds, a president can become isolated within his own administration -- his agenda undermined by inertia, resistance or conflicting priorities. Obama eventually will need to define Obamaism and cultivate allies in his own administration who will fight for his enthusiasms.

Whatever the caveats, Obama is doing something marvelously right: He is disappointing the ideologues. This is more than many of us hoped -- and it is causing some of us to raise our hopes in Obama again.

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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