Washington Babylon — December 1, 2008, 10:41 am

About Obama’s Team: Cabinet picks do matter

Face it: if you’re a self-described Democratic Party progressive, Barack Obama’s picks for top spots in his administration look pretty grim thus far. Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner are disciples of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. The latter was a chief architect of Bill Clinton’s pro-Wall Street policies who then moved on to Citibank, where he helped bankrupt the company and the country (in return for over $100 million in compensation since 1999).

“The ultimate irony, of course, is that just as Rubin and Co. at Citi were being bailed out by the Bush administration, President-elect Barack Obama was getting set to announce a new economic team drawn almost entirely from Rubin acolytes,” Steven Pearlstein wrote the other day in the Washington Post.

And Paul Volcker to head Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory board? A hero to central bankers everywhere, Volcker under Presidents Carter and Reagan whipped inflation by creating the worst depression and highest levels of unemployment since the 1930s. “It’s not that Obama…turns out to be a pragmatist,” Fred Barnes writes in The Weekly Standard. “The point is he’s pragmatic (so far) in one direction-rightward. Who knew?”

Conservative commentators and Republicans are also applauding Obama’s likely new team of foreign policy and defense hands: Senator Hillary Clinton as secretary of state; General James Jones as national security adviser; and Robert Gates reprising his role as defense secretary.

“The triumvirate of Gates, Clinton and Jones to lead Obama’s national security team instills great confidence at home and abroad; and, further strengthens the growing respect for the President-elect’s courage and ability to exercise sound judgment in selecting the ‘best and the brightest’ to implement our nation’s security policies,” said Virginia Senator John Warner. The New York Times described the trio as “two veteran cold warriors and a political rival whose records are all more hawkish than that of the new president who will face them in the White House Situation Room.”

“The most striking characteristic of the current lineup is how the personalities reflect the centrist vision of the Democratic Party promoted by Bill Clinton and his colleagues at the Democratic Leadership Council in the 1990s,” Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School, wrote at CNN.

Meanwhile, progressives appear to be in a state of denial. “There’s a hope that he is using very experienced people with centrist credentials to drive a very bold, progressive program,” said Robert Borosage of Campaign for America’s Future.

Obama himself has argued that he has been forced to pick centrists as his top aides because the country is facing economic turmoil, but that has no bearing on the dramatic changes he intends to make as president. “I understand where the vision for change comes from,” he said at a press conference. “First and foremost, it comes from me. That’s my job — to provide a vision in terms of where we are going, and to make sure then that my team is implementing.”

But does it really seem logical that cabinet appointments are irrelevant? Think back here for a moment to early 2001. Remember how George W. Bush had run as a “compassionate conservative” who was going to run a centrist administration and reach out to Democrats? Then came his cabinet picks. As Gary Kamiya wrote in Salon at the time:

Bush blithely turned to his party’s far right wing for two of his most critical Cabinet appointments, nominating Bible-thumping, pro-gun, anti-abortion, Confederacy-praising Sen. John Ashcroft as attorney general and pro-growth, pro-oil, anti-regulation Gale Norton to head Interior.

Notwithstanding his announcement…that he was appointing Clinton’s commerce secretary, Norm Mineta, to the relatively minor post of transportation chief, Bush’s Cabinet picks have a distinctly rightward tilt. In fact, now that his “compassionate conservative” wrapping paper has been removed, Bush looks a lot like your basic reactionary Texas oilman.

A similar sort of process is taking place now, only in reverse: Obama campaigned for “change” and won a strong mandate, but his key appointments to date have been timid, to put it mildly.

Does this mean that Obama’s administration will be a disaster? It’s obviously too early to know (and even competence would be a big improvement at this point). But “bold” and “progressive”? I wouldn’t bet on it.

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More from Ken Silverstein:

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