Progressive complaints about Obama's appointments

The new President's positioning in the center-right of the Democratic Party isn't surprising. It's what he repeatedly made clear he intended to do.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published November 23, 2008 1:04PM (EST)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

I've been genuinely mystified by the disappointment and surprise being expressed by many liberals over the fact that Obama's most significant appointments thus far are composed of pure Beltway establishment figures drawn from the center-right of the Democratic Party and, probably once he names his Defense Secretary and CIA Director, even from the Bush administration -- but not from the Left.  In an email yesterday, Digby explained perfectly why this reaction is so mystifying (re-printed with her consent): 

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.

So many progressives were misled about what Obama is and what he believes.  But it wasn't Obama who misled them.  It was their own desires, their eagerness to see what they wanted to see rather than what reality offered.  

Early on in the primary cycle, Markos Moultisas -- in a post I recall vividly though can't find -- wisely urged that progressives refrain from endorsing or supporting any of the Democratic candidates unless they work for that support, make promises and concessions important to the progressive agenda, etc., lest progressives' support end up being taken for granted.  But that advice was largely ignored.  For whatever reasons, highly influential progressive factions committed themselves early, loyally and enthusiastically to Obama even though he never even courted that support, let alone made commitments to secure it.

That may have been perfectly justified -- by pragmatic calculations regarding electability, by excitement over his personality and charisma, by the belief that he was comparatively superior to the alternatives.  Still, the fact remains that progressives, throughout the year, largely lent Obama their loyal support in exchange for very little.  He never pretended that he wanted to implement or advance a progressive agenda.  And he certainly never did anything to suggest he would oppose or undermine the Democratic establishment that has exerted power in the party over the last two decades.

It's difficult to understand what basis progressives think they have for demanding greater inclusion in his cabinet and other high-level appointments, and it's even more difficult to understand the basis for the disappointment and surprise being expressed over the fact that center-right Democrats and Republicans are welcomed in his inner circle, but -- as The Nation's Chris Hayes put it -- "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."

It goes without saying that there will be Obama policies, both in the foreign policy and domestic realms, that are vastly superior to what we've seen the last eight years and to what we would have seen had McCain/Palin won.  And as the second-tier positions begin to fill out, there will probably be a handful of appointees who progressives consider to be one of their own.  And as Digby points out, the magnitude of the financial crisis may compel him to embrace policies that are deemed to be quite progressive (from massive stimulus packages and government intervention in the economy to a diminution of our foreign adventurism).

But Barack Obama is a centrist, establishment politician.  That is what he has been since he's been in the Senate, and more importantly, it's what he made clear -- both explicitly and through his actions -- that he intended to be as President.  Even in the primary, he paid no price whatsoever for that in terms of progressive support.  As is true for the national Democratic Party generally, he has no good reason to believe he needs to accommodate liberal objections to what he is doing.  The Joe Lieberman fiasco should have made that as conclusively clear as it gets.  

The point isn't that this reality should just be passively accepted and nothing done about it.  The point is that for anything to be done about it, the reality needs to be accepted.  The campaign we began earlier this year with Accountability Now and are now vigorously developing and pursuing -- to devote all resources and energies to defeating incumbents in primary challenges -- is grounded in the premise that one's political beliefs and principles will be ignored until there is a price to pay for ignoring them. Democrats don't perceive there is a price to pay for ignoring progressives, and so they do. That isn't surprising. What would be surprising is if, under those circumstances, anything else happened.


UPDATE:  David Sirota offers one explanation as to why Obama feels more compelled to embrace center-right figures and even Republicans than those perceived to be "on the Left":

[T]he answer to the question, in my opinion, is because Obama effectively ate a huge chunk of the left. And really, Obama didn't eat a huge chunk of the left, celebrity did.

What I mean to say is that we live in a culture that now organizes around celebrity - and Obama knew it, and knew that lots of left organizations aren't really ideological - they are, if anything, organized around the Democratic Party and Bush hatred. So he basically figured out that if he could become a celebrity - and a Democratic Bush-hating one - he could swallow up a huge part of the "progressive infrastructure" and organize it around him (and all the hateful "if you question Obama, you hate Obama" comments that will inevitably be at the bottom of this diary actually 'confirm this!). . . .

So now, because of this, you have a large majority (though not the whole) of his 10 million-person email list overarchingly organized around the celebrity Barack Obama - not really around issues (though certainly people can like Obama and support specific issues). That means he feels no real obligation to appointing "movement progressives" because he has his own movement - one that's about helping, aiding and defending Barack Obama. Again, I say that not derisively or in anger at Barack Obama - I say it just to note an important fact.

It's important not to generalize.  It's impossible to quantify, but I think the vast majority of Obama supporters were perfectly clear-eyed about what he is and voted for him for the standard unremarkable reasons -- that they perceived him as better than the alternatives.  But there is no question that Obama has inspired among many Democrats a type of deep and intense loyalty that is personal to Obama rather than grounded in policy issues, that many see him as much more than a politician who will make good political decisions.  That gives him far more latitude to do what he wants -- far more power -- than the average politician has.

Add to that the fact that the one thing that Republicans, establishment Democrats and Beltway pundits all share more than anything else is a contempt for what they perceive as "the Left" and a belief that it should be scorned -- see here and here -- and none of this should be the least bit surprising.  Obama pays no price, and garners many benefits, by embracing the center-right and scorning "the Left."  It's this dynamic that needs to change in order for the outcomes to change.  [In this post generally, by "Left" I really mean those who are dissatisfied with the bipartisan Beltway establishment and Democratic Party leadership -- prevailing Beltway orthodoxies -- rather than merely opposed to Republicans and supportive of anyone with a "D" after their name].


UPDATE II:  Jane Hamsher articulates what I would call a very realistic, and rather Obama-sympathetic, point of view regarding his app0intments and what he intends to do.


UPDATE III:  Daniel Larison has some characteristically insightful points to add, particularly concerning all of the paeans we're hearing to the glories of "pragmatism" and the evils of ideology.

Glenn Greenwald

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