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.

Share
Single Page

More from Ken Silverstein:

Commentary November 17, 2015, 6:41 pm

Shaky Foundations

The Clintons’ so-called charitable enterprise has served as a vehicle to launder money and to enrich family friends.

From the November 2013 issue

Dirty South

The foul legacy of Louisiana oil

Perspective October 23, 2013, 8:00 am

On Brining and Dining

How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2016

Disunified Front

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Isn’t It Romantic?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trusted Traveler

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Iowa

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Queen and I

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
New Movies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well.”
Still © Lucasfilm
Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.
Article
The Queen and I·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Buckingham Palace is a theater in need of renovation. There is something pathetic about a fiercely vacuumed throne room. The plants are tired. Plastic is nailed to walls and mirrors. The ballroom is set for a ghostly banquet. Everyone is whispering, for we are in a mad kind of church. A child weeps.”
Photograph (detail) © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Estimated percentage of New Hampshire’s bat population that died in 2010:

65

A horticulturalist in Florida announced a new low-carb potato.

In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today