01/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Appointments and Disappointments: Sizing Up Obama's New Cabinet

Progressives are in a state over Obama's cabinet appointments. Cries of "betrayal," "sellout," and "Clintonian copycat" fill the air. Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager, just found it necessary to speak out urgently in the Huff Press to defend the cabinet appointments against progressive critics. I agree with him that we should calm down. I'm convinced we will have to wait awhile to see how this plays out.

I start with the understanding that Obama is a remarkably smart, principled, and capable person with a durable commitment to the poor and dispossessed. He grew up in a common American family that didn't hold wealth and had no connections to people of power and influence. After gaining a peak university education, through affirmative action aid, he chose to settle in an African-American community in Chicago and to do grassroots community organizing and civil rights law to improve the chances of people living at the edge.

There is no reason to believe he will dump these lifelong influences to instead indulge the rich and privileged, now that he holds enormous political power. I suspect that he will lean in the direction of using that power to advance the causes that have been so much a part of him. But he will do it in his own way, which doesn't fit anybody's mold.

Some observers believe that the appointments are a strategic ploy, a smokescreen for co-opting middle and right elements. His aim is to "feint to the right, move left." The cover of centrist appointments, making Obama seem to be a man of the middle, will allow him to head leftward without rousing as much heated opposition. So they say. Obama doesn't appear to be that consummate a tactical trickster, but something along those lines was probably afoot.

Community Building vs. Social Advocacy

Obama has always spoken of two-pronged political aims. One part of him wants to enhance the workings of our government, to make it more rational, civil, effective, and non-partisan--bringing the country together. The cabinet appointments jibe with that intent. The other part wants to craft policies that better serve those who have been getting a raw deal. That means fixing health care, upgrading education for all, and getting the rich to pay a fairer share of their taxes. Community organizers call these two aims "community building" and "social advocacy."

Obama seems dedicated to both, but to do the community building piece means moderating the advocacy bit. You can't slam through liberal policies and at the same time cajole lawmakers more to the right into taking cooperative approach. It's a balancing act, but I feel that Obama has an idea in his head about how to fuse these usually opposing goals. I can't discern how he intends to do that. But I think his mind has a hold on it and I am willing to give him a chance at it.

Liberal vs. Centrist

When you look at Obama's policy profile, you don't get anything near high-density clarity on his position on the political spectrum. He has a strong record in supporting both liberal and centrist principles. On the liberal side, consider the areas of global warming, infrastructure investment for job creation, education opportunity, and health insurance. He also favors thoughtful diplomatic engagement with hostile nations, immigration reform, "spread the wealth" taxation, bailing out foreclosure victims, and so on. The Republicans labeled him "the most liberal senator" during the election campaign.

His centrist positions include forgoing torture prosecutions, straddling pro-choice/pro-life abortion positions, opposing strong gun control laws, and absolving telecommunications companies that spied on citizens. He backs merit pay for teachers and will excuse oil companies from having to pay taxes on windfall profits -- while also allowing a turncoat like Lieberman to resume full Senate privileges. And don't forget picking a cabinet full of Clinton and Bush holdovers.

So, who is the real Obama: a liberal/left politico or someone holding the middle ground? I take it that Obama relies more on reason than stiff ideology in shaping his thinking. How else to explain his apparent comfort teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago? My impression is that he goes with the flow of data and analysis in decision-making and doesn't have a predictable end position. He's a humanistic pragmatist who can touch ground in various places. That's what comes across in his books.

Where it All Comes Down

We don't know in the specifics how Obama will bring things together in the community building vs. social advocacy dimension or in the left vs. center policy dimension. It's a pretty wide-open landscape. My guess is that we need to average Obama's spread across the center-left range of the political spectrum and assume that he will form a somewhat left of center government. I think, though, that it will be a government as far left as is possible for any administration to be within the reality of contemporary American politics. (I prefer the policies of Kucinich, but we saw how may votes he managed to get.) Obama's evident authority and integrity will keep those competent but centrist appointees in the cabinet in line with his policy decisions. Pressure from his millions of organized followers will add to this.

It will be a government that is effective and skillful in enacting intended policies and programs. The makeup of the cabinet gives Obama a leg up on this. It will also be a government that creates a progressive-leaning policy frame without the extreme bitterness and partisan acrimony that we have seen over these last many decades. The cast in the new cabinet will be aid this. These are my expectations and hopes for the new regime -- hopes rooted in evidence and reasonable conjectures.

For sure, foreign policy will be more centrist and constrained, in keeping with the bi-partisan, empire-building thrust of all American administrations in memory -- Democratic and Republican. Obama and his emerging cabinet are hardly likely to promote fundamental change in the American Empire's broad global reach. On the other hand, under his leadership his cabinet team will be an instrument for bringing about considerable change on the domestic scene.

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