Sunday, November 23, 2008

Liberal disappointment with Obama

Most of Obama's cabinet appointments announced thus far have been centrist Democrats, some of whom have endorsed things like the Iraq war, "harsh interrogation methods" (if not necessarily waterboarding), and other excesses of the Bush administration. One very important post, Secretary of Defense, may even stay unchanged, if Obama decides to keep Robert Gates, albeit temporarily.

Predictably, this has resulted in some consternation from the Left. Here's Chris Bowers:

I know everyone is obsessed with the "team of rivals" idea right now, but I feel incredibly frustrated. Even after two landslide elections in a row, are our only governing options as a nation either all right-wing Republicans, or a centrist mixture of Democrats and Republicans? Isn't there ever a point when we can get an actual Democratic administration? Also, why isn't there a single member of Obama's cabinet who will be advising him from the left? It seems to me as though there is a team of rivals, except for the left, which is left off the team entirely.

Of course, we don't know his entire cabinet just yet. And many of the people being discussed have not been officially confirmed. The Left may be going nuts over Robert Gates, but we only have speculation over who Obama's SecDef will actually be.

And some appointments are very encouraging. As Glenn Greenwald explains in this post, Eric Holder for Attorney General would be a huge improvement, and offers a real possibility of reversing much of Bush's assault on the Constitution (but his rape of the Justice Department may not be as easily corrected).

Finally, while Obama may be wary of starting witch hunts over torture, and prosecuting everyone involved (a process that would be satisfying, but inevitably polarizing), he has sent signals through his advisors that he may institute a bipartisan independent commission to investigate the matter and make its findings public. Not my ideal solution (I think war crimes can and should be prosecuted, no matter how important and powerful the perpetrators are), but it's in keeping with his philosophy.

The simple truth is that Obama is not a politician that will rock the boat. Despite all his talk about "change", he is, in fact, an extremely cautious and pragmatic man. He is also not a liberal ideologue. His decisions on the transition thus far are entirely in keeping with that. To this Canadian, Democrats are almost always disappointingly center-right, but I knew that about Obama from the start. Nevertheless, he was worth supporting. And he remains so. And any progressives who harbored unrealistic expectations of Obama have no one but themselves to blame. I pretty much agree with this e-mail Digby sent to Greenwald:

The villagers and the right made it very clear what they required of Obama --- bipartisanship, technocratic competence and center-right orthodoxy. Liberals took cultural signifiers as a sign of solidarity and didn't ask for anything. So, we have the great symbolic victory of the first black president (and that's not nothing, by the way) who is also a bipartisan, centrist technocrat. Surprise.

There are things to applaud about the cabinet picks -- Clinton is a global superstar who, along with Barack himself, signals to the world that the US is no longer being run by incompetent, extremist, political fringe dwellers. Holder seems to be genuinely against torture and hostile to the concept of the imperial presidency. Gaithner is a smart guy who has the trust of the Big Money Boyz, which may end up being useful considering the enormous and risky economic challenges ahead. Emmanuel is someone who is not afraid to wield a knife and if we're lucky he might just wield it from time to time against a Republican or a right wing Democrat. Napolitano seems to have a deft political touch with difficult issues like immigration which is going to be a battleground at DHS. And on and on.

None of them are liberals, but then Obama said repeatedly that he wasn't ideological, that he cared about "what works." I don't know why people didn't believe that. He's a technocrat who wants to "solve problems" and "change politics." The first may actually end up producing the kind of ideological shift liberals desire simply because of the dire set of circumstances greeting the new administration. (Hooray for the new depression!) The second was always an empty fantasy --- politics is just another word for human nature, and that hasn't changed since we were dancing around the fire outside our caves.

If you want to press for a cabinet appointment at this late date who might bring some ideological ballast, I would guess that labor and energy are where the action is. It would be really helpful to have somebody from the left in the room when the wonks start dryly parceling out the compromises on the economy and climate change. But basically, we are going to be dealing with an administration whose raison d'etre is to make government "work." That's essentially a progressive goal and one that nobody can really argue with. But he never said he would make government "work" for a liberal agenda. Liberals just assumed that.

On a related note, don't all these center-right appointments make the Right's pre-election spittle-flecked rants and nervous breakdowns over socialist left-wing firebrand Black Power Obama even more absurd? They unceasingly pushed this nonsense about him being the "most liberal senator" and a dangerous radical absent any evidence whatsoever, only the thinnest of guilt by association justifications. Does anyone think these idiots will be the least bit chastened by their pre-election rhetoric's utter disassociation from the truth? If you do, you haven't been paying attention the past 8 years.

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