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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.
More from Ken Silverstein:
Perspective — October 23, 2013, 8:00 am
How pro-oil Louisiana politicians have shaped American environmental policy
Postcard — October 16, 2013, 8:00 am
A trip to one of the properties at issue in Louisiana’s oil-pollution lawsuits
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”