Friday, November 28, 2008

Giving Thanks for Obama's Appointments?

Heck no! I'm not the least thankful for the first batch of appointments to the Obama administration. Honestly, they strike me as a bunch of turkeys so far.

Photo by Flickr user Hey Paul, used under a Creative Commons license.

Hillary Clinton for secretary of state? Umm ... I'm all for mending fences, but the only area of substantive policy differences between her and Obama was foreign policy. As I explained at the start of the primaries, Obama's early opposition to the Iraq War convinced me that he would be more judicious in foreign affairs than Clinton, given her vote to authorize military action and her saber-rattling on Iran. If Clinton is kept on a short leash, her appointment would be hollow and meaningless. If not ... well, as I said back in February, peace is the basis for advancing any of the other goals I care about, whether combatting poverty or achieving a sustainable energy policy or securing health care for every American.

Larry Summers as Obama's top economic advisor? Never mind how he infamously speculated on women's biological shortcomings in science and math; that only cost him the Harvard presidency. I'm much more put off by his role as co-architect of late Clinton-era deregulation, which cost all of us a stable economy. Our next Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, also shares culpability for our current morass. On the flip side, none of those economists who've given us trenchant analyses of the mess - Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, Robert Reich, even George Soros for goodness sake - appears to have any formal role in the new administration.

In fact, there's not yet been a key appointment that I've cheered. I wallow in worry when I read analyses like William Greider's at The Nation. Greider sees Obama's appointments as capitulating to center-right policies. In terms of temperament and ability, he notes, these appointees are managers and technocrats who can make the wheels of government turn but don't have the stomach for radical change:
Alas, Obama is coming to power at a critical moment when incrementalism is irrelevant. The system is in collapse. Financial chaos won't wait for patient deliberations. ... Wasting more public money on insolvent mastodons is the least of it. The real scandal is it doesn't work. It can't work because the black hole is too large even for Washington to fill. Government should take over the failing institutions or force them into bankruptcy, break them up and sell them off or mercifully relieve everyone, including the taxpayers.
Part of me thinks that Obama is smart enough to embrace a paradigm shift. Also at The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel argues that while Obama is a pragmatist at heart, times are tough enough that pragmatism itself will force him to take bold action. Digby leans toward a similar assessment, though she's reluctant to prognosticate:
I suspect that on the economy, it's going to have to be a hell of a lot more progressive than anybody dreamed it would be even three months ago. There are no conservative solutions to economic meltdown except just letting it happen --- and I don't think anyone expects Obama to do that.
I don't have a crystal ball, either, and as a historian I do much better at looking backward, anyway. Historically, we're at a great hinge - like the Great Depression, like the Civil War - that could swing either way. With visionary leadership, Obama could exploit the current crisis, much as FDR did, to institute universal health care, launch a sustainable energy and environmental policy along the lines of the Apollo Alliance, and reintroduce regulation that will create a framework for healthy markets. At the HuffPost, Robert Creamer argues Obama is likely to pursue progressive policies because the center of American politics has shifted dramatically to the left and because Obama recognizes historical necessity:
Change doesn't happen incrementally. I think of it as the "Drain-O" theory of history. At key points in history the pressure for democratizing, progressive change overwhelms the forces of the status quo. Then, as the pipes are suddenly cleaned out, massive numbers of progressive changes can finally flow. America is about to experience one of those periods. How much we can accomplish, and how long this period lasts will depend on many factors that we don't yet know -- and one that we do. It will depend heavily on our success in continuing to mobilize the millions of Americans who elected Barack Obama into a movement to enact his program.

Like Obama, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln all installed people in their cabinets who they believed to be effective managers who could deliver. They all had their share of outsiders and progressives, but many were old Washington hands. Yet all of these Presidents faced historic challenges that demanded and enabled them to make fundamental change. And all of them were guided by progressive values that were sharply different from those of Bush, Cheney, and Delay. Obama shares and articulates those values more than any political leader since Robert Kennedy died forty years ago.
Obama himself seems to have finally realized that we progressives are growing nervous. He's insisting that he will set the tone, and not his advisors:
[U]nderstand where the vision for change comes from first and foremost: it comes from me. That's my job, to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure that my team is implementing it.

(Obama as quoted by Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly, via Alternet)
I'm enough of an optimist - and the historical pressures are inexorable enough - that I'm willing to hope that's this is true, and that his vision is basically a progressive one.

I'm enough of a cynic - and worried enough about the $2 trillion in hush-hush loans that the Federal Reserve has granted to banks - to think that we'd had better hold him to it. If we fail, there won't be much cause for gratitude, come next Thanksgiving Day.

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