01/02/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Real Rivalry In the Team: The Cabinet vs. The Campaign Promises

Just as an add-on to my column this week, I wanted to add two more macro thoughts about Obama's appointments, and progressive unrest about those appointments.

First, I think there's a psychological aspect to what bothers progressives about Obama's refusal to appoint movement progressives to key positions. The public opinion data overwhelmingly confirms that Obama won with a clear progressive mandate - to argue otherwise against cut-and-dry numbers is to mimic an ostrich shoving its head in the sand, or to mimic the Braindead Megaphone's insistence that this is a "center-right nation." Additionally, nobody argues that his victory wasn't the product of huge progressive grassroots support. So in light of that, there's a perception that he's delivering the spoils of that victory to those who embody what the election rejected.

In that sense, there's a Rodney Dangerfield harrumph - we progressives get no respect. That's understandable, but we're going to have to keep our eye on the policy, understanding that personnel impacts policy, but isn't policy itself. And the policy is ultimately what defines true respect (and disrespect).

Second, the meaningless "pragmatic Team of Rivals" horseshit - and it truly is media-created horsehit - is clearly being used as a rationale to pack the incoming administration with Establishment figures. Indeed, the "rivalry" isn't between the "team" of appointees (most of them come from the same team - ie. the center-right team of permanent Washington). The "rivalry" is between the positions/ideology of the appointees and the positions/ideology Obama explicitly campaigned on.

For instance, the "rivalry" isn't between Bob Rubin proteges Larry Summers and Tim Geithner on economic policy - it is between Summers and Geithner the ideological deregulators and Obama's promises to better regulate Wall Street. Likewise, the "rivalry" isn't between Hillary Clinton and the other "hawks" on the foreign policy team, it is between Clinton who bashed Obama's proposals for more diplomacy with enemies and Obama's promises to diplomatically reach out to enemy nations.

The problem could be something of a cloistering effect. George W. Bush was criticized for putting yes men around him - people who didn't challenge his thinking. By contrast, Obama is being praised for assembling a "Team of Rivals" that will challenge his thinking and, by extension, his campaign promises (it's logical, after all, to believe his campaign promises are an extension of his thinking). But if that team is comprised mostly of the same kinds of voices from the same Establishment perspective, it will likely mean constant if subtle pressure on the President to water down his policies. In short, he won't be surrounded by yes men - he'll be surrounded by no men.

It's certainly possible that Obama will not be affected at all by the voices he puts around him, and that - as I wrote earlier - he is banking on getting center-right Establishment figures to carry center-left Establishment-challenging policy. We should withhold final judgment until we see the policies come January 2009 and beyond. We don't know that this conservatives -carrying-progressive-legislation strategy is his goal, but we can certainly hope, and we can additionally hope that he didn't appoint center-right Establishment figures to carry a center-right Establishment agenda.

That said, I think those who say that the latter isn't possible and that the only rationale thing to do is simply trust Obama's "buck stops here" promise yesterday are being willfully stupid and dishonest - both to themselves and to those they are arguing with. They claim progressives are being "purists" for the progressive agenda - as if they aren't being pro-Obama purists (ie. purists who refuse to question the Dear Leader). And really, what's better - supposed "purists" whose purity is about a set of policies, or purists whose purity is about who can most loyally worship an individual?

The truth is, we all want Obama to do well - but there's nothing disloyal, silly or uniformed about looking at his appointments and asking why many of them seem to individually represent positions and ideologies at odds with the positions and ideologies he campaigned on. And despite the insistence by some that we should "just wait until Obama's in office" and shut up and "give Obama a chance," there's nothing disloyal, silly or uninformed about speaking out about those questions and concerns now - because he is already exercising power when making these appointments, and as Frederick Douglass said, "power concedes nothing without demand."

As a great philosopher asked, "If not now, when?" And to that I'll add, if not us now, then someone else now. By that I mean, if there isn't progressive pressure now, then there will be pressure from somewhere else.

In fact, there already is - it's no accident that the conservative noise machine from Karl Rove on down is praising Obama's appointments, and effectively creating that rightward pull. If there isn't similar progressive pressure now, don't be surprised if the debate - and thus the policy - starts slowly creeping right. As Chris Bowers notes, even Bill Clinton understood the value of progressive pressure - and noted that without such pressure he was forced to the right. That means progressive pressure benefits Obama by helping him play off it and define the progressive center his campaign promises embody.