Monday, December 1, 2008

Obama's Cabinet, Progressive faith in his economic team, and why I don't share it

I've always liked Openleft's right to respond policy, so I figured it would be a good idea to put Obama's response to criticism of his nominations up here, as well as some other thoughts, defenses and theories about Obama's appointments.

First, Obama's response to criricim of his cabinet nominees:
"Understand where the vision for change comes from, first and foremost," he said. "It comes from me. That's my job, to provide a vision in terms of where we are going and to make sure then that my team is implementing [that vision]."

"The last Democratic administration we had was the Clinton administration," said Obama. "So it would be surprising if I selected a Treasury Secretary who had had no connection with the last Democratic administration, because that would mean that the person had no experience in Washington whatsoever. And I suspect that you would be troubled and the American people would be troubled if I selected a Treasury Secretary or a chairman of the National Economic Council, at one of the most critical economic times in our history, who had no experience in government whatsoever. What we are going to do is combine experience with fresh thinking."

"I think when you ultimately look at what this advisory board looks like, you'll say this is a cross-section of opinion that in some ways reinforces conventional wisdom and in some ways breaks with orthodoxy in all sorts of ways," he went on. "And that's the kind of discussion we want. We want ideas from everybody. What I don't want to do is to somehow suggest that somehow suggest that since you served in the last Democratic administration, that you're somehow barred from serving again. Because we need people who are going to be able to hit the ground running."
Paul Krugman's take on the economic team:
A thought I’ve had: there have been some complaints from movement progressives about the centrism/orthodoxy of Obama’s economics appointments. To some extent this was unavoidable, I think: someone like the Treasury secretary has to be an experienced hand who can deal with Wall Street, and I haven’t heard anyone proposing particular individuals with clearer progressive credentials to hold that position. (And for those of you wondering about yours truly — I’m temperamentally unsuited, have never had any desire for the job, and probably have more influence as an outside gadfly than I ever could in DC.)
The now fairly widespread in progressive circles theory that Obama is using centrists to pursue progressive policy, put into words by Robert Kuttner:
As progressives, we can view President-Elect Obama's emerging economic team in one of two ways. Either he has disappointed us by picking a group of Clinton retreads--the very people who brought us the deregulation that produced the financial collapse; the fiscal conservatives who in the 1990s put budget balance ahead of rebuilding public institutions. Or we can conclude that he has very shrewdly named a team of technically competent centrists so that he can govern as a progressive in pragmatist's clothing--as he moves the political center to the left.

Which will it be? Certainly, Obama's press notices are phenomenal, and Republicans have almost been more enthusiastic than Democrats. When Arianna Huffington and I debated George Will and David Brooks on George Stephanopulos's This Week Sunday morning, the conservatives were, if anything, more approving of Obama's picks than we were.

On another channel, Republican guru Ed Rollins could be heard exulting about the Obama cabinet. I even had the out-of-body experience of debating Pat Buchanan on Hardball, to find that he thought Hillary Clinton was a terrific choice for Secretary of State. Obama now has the highest approval ratings on record for any president-elect, and he has the entire Republican pundit class in a swoon.
. . .
Obama is the president, and he will do what he deems necessary. In my writings during the campaign, I sometimes found myself second-guessing Obama's strategy--and he invariably turned out to be smarter than I was.
And finally, David Sirota's take on Kuttner's theory:
As Rachel says, he seems to be saying he's going to put policy over personnel. Or, as I noted, it's what David Axelrod told the New York Times: "He's not looking for people to give him a vision - he's going to put together an administration of people who can effectuate his vision."

There's no real precedent for this in politics. Sure, presidents have hired bureaucrats or functionaries to implement their vision, but there's not many examples of them hiring high-profile ideologues like, say, Larry Summers and getting them to carry a vision that's very different from their own ideological vision.

In other words, it's usually the case that "personnel is policy," as Grover Norquist once said. That's especially true in an executive branch that's so large it tends to demand policy delegation. But if that truly is Obama's strategy, and he can pull it off - that is, if he can get ideological free-market fundamentalists (and nobody credible on either side of the aisle really argues that Summers, Geithner, et. all are anything but that) to carry progressive FDR-ish legislation - then he will indeed be one of the master politicians of history. And if anyone seems to have the political skills to do it, it is Obama.
Ok, that's a lot to throw out there at once, but I figured it would be the best way of making the point that if you ever decided to take my opinions with more than a grain of salt, there are a lot of very smart people out there who disagree with me on this one.

I also think that some people misinterpret the criticism of his appointments, and now is as good a time as any to clear that up.

While some of the nominations make zero sense in my book, in no way do I think that Obama's foreign policy team will somehow make him want to bomb Iran or prolong the war in Iraq as members of his cabinet have advocated. I believe him when he says that he sets the mission, and it's his team who carry out the mission. And as for the economics team, if you did your homework on Obama's economic policy beliefs during his time in the senate and throughout presidential run, a center right team shouldn't be much of a surprise.

So why am I still disappointed by many his choices in both teams? Believe it or not, it has very little to do with ideology.

One of the ideals of this country is our belief in a meritocracy. If you are right, then you will be rewarded for being right and rise to the top. (Granted this is rarely true in practice, especially in politics, but I do believe that the ideal matters) When Obama's cabinet is described in the media, you hear the words "pragmatic" and "technocrat" quite a bit, and he seems to be getting praised for picking people who "put policy over partisanship", and just about every other Broader-y cliche in the books. But all of the lofty team of rivals rhetoric seems to exclude what should be the biggest question of them all: Who was right and who was wrong?

It was Barack Obama during the primary who made the powerful case against Hillary Clinton that experience doesn't count if it's experience getting things wrong. And to a large degree his appointments fail that same test.
  • Robert Gates was wrong about the Iraq War when it began and was wrong about it in 2007 when he stated that leaving Iraq would have "dire" consequences for the U.S.
  • Tim Geithner screwed up the handling of the citigroup bailout less than a month ago.
This has nothing to do with ideology, this has everything to do with not rewarding the same people who got us into the mess we're in today. There are quite a few well respected economists who predicted the housing bubble, decried this financial deregulation and were right to be worried about the bailout. There are plenty of experienced people who were right about the war in Iraq and right about the Kyl-Lieberman amendment. When you run your campaign based on good judgment, one would assume you'd fill your cabinet with people who have shown that same good judgment in the past, instead of promoting those who have repeatedly lacked it.

And as for Kuttner's(and others) argument about Obama's economic team secretly executing a progressive policy, I would be lying if I didn't see it as anything other than moderately insane.

I say this knowing that plenty of people who I greatly respect believe this to be true, but having followed Barack Obama's career and economic advisers for some time, they are making a leap that I'm just not comfortable making. Barack Obama's economic policies will be tremendously better than anything we've seen in some time (this speech is a great start), but people need to be realistic with their expectations. If he's had people like Summers, Rubin, Furman, Goolsbee as his closest economic advisers with very little progressive economic representation during his time in the senate and throughout his presidential campaign, then it is more than likely that he believes in their economic philosophy.

No one, and I mean NO ONE, would be happier to be wrong about this than me. And like I said before, the economic crisis has gotten to the point that it may force Geithner and Summers to do something more radical than they had planned, the way it forced Paulson to take equity in the banks. But to think that somehow Obama nominated a bunch of center right economists to carry out an amazingly progressive economic agenda that even Obama himself hasn't mentioned or committed to seems a bit off the deep end to me. Not impossible, but in my mind it's about as probable as him making this Jim Jones National Security adviser, or naming Hillary Clinton a high ranking member of his cabinet.

Oh, yeah, that last one actually happened. Whoops.

Well, if we learned anything this year, it's that ANYTHING IS POSSSIIIIBBBBLLLEEEE!!!

Prove me wrong Barack, the ball's in your court.

1 comment:

  1. One of the ideals of this country is our belief in a meritocracy. If you are right, then you will be rewarded for being right and rise to the top. (Granted this is rarely true in practice, especially in politics, but I do believe that the ideal matters)

    just to preface, i have little to no expertise on any of these matters, but as far as i can see it you basically disproved your whole argument right off the bat. when, ever in the whole of American history, has our society been a meritocracy? sure, people may want to pretend that it is, that this is the way we operate. the obvious truth is that this is not a meritocracy, and that's not the way life works, let alone politics. for all his idealistic rhetoric, Obama still has to get the job done.

    now, here's where my lack of knowledge on politics comes into play; i don't know what the result would be if he picked foreign policy and economic teams full of new, breaths of fresh air as opposed to Clinton administration retreads. also, your arguments against all of these appointments have been very strong and valid, so I'm not saying i agree with all of Obama's moves. the bottom line though is that this is politics, baby! what's fair and just will almost always take a backseat to what will win elections/get your agenda implemented. again, i have to reiterate that i have almost no idea what i'm talking about here, this is just the way i read it as someone who isn't as well-versed on politics