Should Progressives Be Upset with Obama?

01/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the past few weeks, I've been repeatedly asked by friends and acquaintances, "Well, what do you think of Obama's first appointments?" These various inquisitions gave me a chance to organize conflicting thoughts--which was fortunate, for the Washington Post's "Outlook" section asked me to contribute a piece on this question. The article will appear on the front page of the section on Sunday. But it's already been posted--old media meets new media--and here are some excerpts:

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....

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.....

For the moment, the watchword for progressives ought to be a version of an old Reagan trope: hope, but verify....

You can read the conclusion and the entire piece here.

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