I find it difficult to argue with Christopher Hayes' assessment
of Obama's cabinet selections thus far.
Not a single, solitary, actual dyed-in-the-wool progressive has, as far as I can tell, even been mentioned for a position in the new administration. Not one. Remember this is the movement that was right about Iraq, right about wage stagnation and inequality, right about financial deregulation, right about global warming and right about health care. And I don't just mean in that in a sectarian way. I mean to say that the emerging establishment consensus on all of these issues came from the left. There's tons of things the left is right about that aren't even close to mainstream (taking a hatchet to the national security state and ending the prison industrial complex to name just two), but hopefully we're moving there.
And yet, no one who comes from the part of American political and intellectual life that has given birth to all of these ideas is anywhere to be found within miles of the Obama cabinet thus far. WTF?
A few things. I don't think Obama ever presented himself as anything other than a mainstream centrist Democrat. In fact he went out of his way to do so. His policy platform was surely more progressive than John Kerry's in 2004, but in this election it was to the right of his primary contenders, on balance. As the center moved left, as Hayes mentions, Obama kept up, but he didn't exactly stick his neck out. However, his liaison to Congress is progressive Henry Waxman's longtime chief of staff, and his policy director is a former SEIU political organizer. It appears that the sausage-makers are pretty far to the left, which is good. But let's be clear - Obama isn't tilting to the center
, he's in the center and always has been. Where his policy is progressive - on health care, the environment, and labor - it's because he's been pushed there, by either events or movement progressives. We have to keep doing so.
The other thing is that it's unclear how much power Cabinet secretaries will actually have. In Bush's White House half of the Cabinet could have telecommuted two days a week. They were given no power beyond making speeches faxed over from the political shop. In Clinton's White House, by contrast, the Treasury Department directed fiscal policy. It's unclear where Obama will fall along those lines, with one notable exception I'll address later in the post.
But clearly, there aren't a lot of encouraging signs. Jim Jones at NSA means that all of the rumored national security picks
are pretty hawkish.
Let's say that all of the leading contenders for Obama's national security team end up in his administration. This would give him a core foreign policy team of Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano, Jim Jones, and Robert Gates. That is, overall, a center-right foreign policy team lacking any clear progressives (at least, foreign policy and national security progressives). All of them, with the possible exception of Jones, supported the Iraq war from the outset. At least two of them, Gates and Napolitano, opposed withdrawing troops as recently as 2007 (although the new agreement with Iraq has rendered that debate moot). Also, two members of this group, Gates and Jones, supported McCain. This team would oversee roughly 60% of discretionary federal budget spending, military operations, and all diplomatic relations.
That all of these people supported the war is particularly depressing for the antiwar movement
. While Iraq is largely out of our hands at this point, it doesn't bode well for new conflicts. And at a time where the public is warming to the notion of cutting defense spending
as more knowledge about the truly bloated waste in that department, do you really think this team would recommend that?
And hiring John Brennan, the former chief of staff to George Tenet, to run the CIA would be astonishing
The simple answer to the question - what length do we want to go? - is to abide by the rule of law. Why is that so hard to understand? And yet Brennan and Tenet didn't. They authorized clear torture sessions. Why is such a man even considered for the post under Obama? This man cannot end the taint of Bush-Cheney. He was Bush-Cheney. In fact, if Obama picks him, it will be a vindication of the kind of ambivalence and institutional moral cowardice that made America a torturing nation. It would be an unforgivable betrayal of his supporters and his ideals. It would be an acknowledgment that Tenet himself is not a war criminal, while the facts indisputably prove that he was.
While Brennan will probably institute whatever policy he's given
, you cannot totally divorce the beliefs of the individual senior staff from the policy outcomes. I think that ends up looking like an apology.
I think there are some decent picks here, like Napolitano at DHS, and there are rumored names, like co-chair of the Progressive Caucus Raul Grijalva at Interior, which would be solid. Overall, however, there is reason to be concerned
And that brings me to Hillary Clinton, and the notable exception I mentioned before. It definitely seems like she's going to take the Secretary of State job
, passing up a Senate leadership position
to be the public face for the American government around the world. Now I've gone back and forth on the Clinton pick - Steve Clemons makes a compelling case
. But one of the reasons I supported Obama in the primary over Clinton, in fact the main reason, was his new way of thinking about foreign policy. Ezra Klein notes
Samantha Power's memo during the campaign (I thought Power was a sure bet for one of these foreign policy positions):
It was Washington’s conventional wisdom that led us into the worst strategic blunder in the history of US foreign policy. The rush to invade Iraq was a position advocated by not only the Bush Administration, but also by editorial pages, the foreign policy establishment of both parties, and majorities in both houses of Congress. Those who opposed the war were often labeled weak, inexperienced, and even naïve. Barack Obama defied conventional wisdom and opposed invading Iraq. He did so at a time when some told him that doing so would doom his political future...Barack Obama was right; the conventional wisdom was wrong. And today, we see the consequences. Iraq is in chaos. According to the National Intelligence Estimate, the threat to our homeland from terrorist groups is “persistent and evolving.” Al-Qaeda has a safe-haven in Pakistan. Iran has only grown stronger and bolder. The American people are less safe because of a rash war...Barack Obama’s judgment is right. It is conventional wisdom that has to change.
And then he goes and puts in place at the State Department a practitioner of the very conventional wisdom Power was arguing against, which has real-world consequences in a variety of ways. Clinton's judgment, which Obama's campaign here basically calls flawed, will have the ability to flourish and make decisions with a legitimate impact. Perhaps more important is how Clinton may stack Foggy Bottom
with her team of CW fountains, instead of all the Obama foreign policy people who got the war right and flocked to this idea of a new mindset around these issues.
In addition, some Obama loyalists wonder whether the same people who attacked Obama on foreign policy during the primaries can implement Obama’s agenda from State Dept. perches. “Look, Clinton and Obama are both smart people,” said one Democratic official who would not speak for the record, “and I’m sure their one-on-one relationship would be OK. But when you hire a Clinton, you hire more than just that one person, you get the entire package.” If Clinton becomes secretary of state, it’s possible that the fissures between her loyalists and Obama’s would be a significant undercurrent of the administration’s foreign-policy decision-making [...]
Some progressive Obama supporters think the arrival of Clinton at the State Dept. will mean they’ll be frozen out. That would have implications for their advancement in subsequent Democratic administrations.
“Basically, you have all of these young, next-generation and mid-career people who took a chance on Obama” during the primaries, said one Democratic foreign-policy expert included in that cohort. “They were many times the ones who were courageous enough to stand up early against Iraq, which is why many of them supported Obama in the first place. And many of them would likely get shut out of the mid-career and assistant-secretary type jobs that you need, so that they can one day be the top people running a future Democratic administration.”
In the foreign-policy bureaucracy, these middle-tier jobs — assistant secretary and principal-deputy-assistant and deputy-assistant — are stepping stones to bigger, more important jobs, because they’re where much of the actual policy-making is hashed out. Those positions flesh out strategic decisions made by the president and cabinet secretaries; implement those policies; and use their expertise to both inform decisions and propose targeted or specific solutions to particular crises.
Perhaps the biggest reason why you don't see a lot of progressive names in the Cabinet is that they don't have the requisite experience. Previous Democratic Cabinet heads picked their own Third Way, DLC acolytes as senior staff, and progressives never had a way up. There hasn't been a Democratic Secretary of Defense since 1996, for example. If progressives can't get in the door, the same foreign policy consensus perpetuates all by itself. There isn't a progressive bench right now, and these picks make it much harder to grow one.
Which isn't entirely Obama's job - his role is to choose the best people for the job. But don't tell me that there won't be consequences. The job of persuasion to move left on these issues just got harder.
Labels: Barack Obama, cabinet, Defense Department, defense spending, foreign policy, Hillary Clinton, John Brennan, progressive movement, Robert Gates, State Department, transition